Charters as a political language

A few years ago, I remember Charlie Insley telling me that “charters were the new black”. I’m not sure I was convinced at the time, but there does seem to be an increasing interest in the use of charters for understanding the ideology of power. A couple of seminars at the IHR earlier this year both looked at the charters of particular rulers and I want to bring them together and see if the result tells us anything wider about the topic.

First of all, Kathryn Dutton from Manchester was talking about “Countship: concept and practice in twelfth-century Anjou”. Kathryn is at the start of a project examining non-royal power in twelfth-century France, which will compare the ideology of three territorial principalities: Greater Anjou, Brittany and Aquitaine. Her paper was looking at Geoffrey V of Anjou, on whom she’d written her thesis.

314px-Geoffrey_of_Anjou_Monument
Enamel from Geoffrey’s tomb at Le Mans

Geoffrey married the Empress Matilda of England, and was the father of Henry II, but his most important family connection for propaganda purposes seemed to be that his father, Fulk V of Anjou, became king of Jerusalem, after marrying Queen Melisande. (It’s only as I come to write up it that it occurs to me it’s unusual to become a ruler of your father’s previous territory while your father’s still alive).

Kathryn was talking about a variety of methods, charter and non-charter that Geoffrey used to enhance his status. One was the use of relics and physical symbols: one of his ancestors, Fulk III had brought back a fragment of the True Cross from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and gifted it to St-Laud of Angers. Geoffrey was the abbot of St-Laud, and it’s possible that he wore the reliquary containing it. Fulk V sent back from the east an ivory tau-staff given to him by the wazir of Egypt, which Geoffrey may have used for adventus ceremonies.

Geoffrey never went on pilgrimage or crusade himself (though he may have considered doing so), but he probably used relics and his charters for Anjou often refer to him as “son of the King of Jerusalem”. In contrast, his charters in Normandy, which he conquered in 1144, don’t use this expression. Several of his charters refer to his military successes, e.g. his capture of Gerald of Montreuil-Bellay after a lengthy siege in 1151. He then seems to have led Gerald and his family in chains in something of a triumph, giving charters at a number of places to celebrate this victory. This caused outrage at the Capetian court, especially when Geoffrey took Gerald as a prisoner to Paris. Bernard of Clairvaux threatened him with excommunication and prophesied his imminent death (which indeed happened).

Charters, then, were only one part of Geoffrey’s projection of power, though obviously an important one. In contrast, Roberta Cimino from St Andrews, a couple of months later focused specifically on charters, in a paper entitled “The queen’s title in Italian diplomas (9th-10th centuries)”. Roberta was looking at one particular title, that of “consors regni”, implying the sharer of an empire, which was used in mid-ninth to mid-tenth century Italian royal diplomas but rarely elsewhere. “Consors imperii” was a title first used in the late Roman empire for the ruler and his heir, and it was revived for this purpose at the start of the ninth century, in texts such as Einhard’s Vita Karoli or the Royal Frankish Annals. From the mid-ninth century it started to be used for the king or emperor’s wife.

There’s been a lot of discussion about why the meaning of the term shifted, with some researchers, such as Carlo Guido Mor, seeing the use of title as reflecting the existence of a specific institution of co-regency, and others, such as Paolo Delogu seeing it as an honorific title, introduced into Carolingian diplomatics from literature. Roberta was arguing that the title didn’t have a fixed meaning, but was instead a fluid instrument, used in some, but not all charters mentioning the queen. Diplomas, she argued, were performances in total and all the elements contributed to them.

For example, although the title was used for Empress Ermengarde (wife of Lothar I) in 848, it didn’t appear again until the 860s, when it started to be used for Angilberga, the wife of Louis II. Even then, it wasn’t used in all the charters which mention her. Roberta was arguing that Louis’s chancery practice changed after his expedition to south Italy in 866, both because he had a very limited chancery staff and because he was concerned to promote his imperial authority. There was an orchestrated campaign of imperial propaganda which included solemn titles for the queen. Very unusually, there are also silver deniers from 871-872 which have Angilberga’s name on the reverse.

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Roberta also looked at the use of “consors imperii” for Ageltrude, the wife of Guy of Spoleto. Guy was the first non-Carolingian emperor, and had a very strong imperial ideology. Ageltrude is not always given the title “consors imperii,” but she is in two clusters of charters: four from 891, issued on her imperial coronation and two from 894, at a time when Guy was experiencing political problems. The properties being given to Ageltrude at that point had previous associations with Carolingian women. Overall, the title is applied to Ageltrude only when she’s recipient of properties associated with the Carolingians.

Roberta then finished with a diploma from 948, in which “consors imperii” was used to demonstrate the relationship between two men: a diploma of Lothar II of Italy calls Berengar of Ivrea, the effective ruler of Italy, “summus consors regni”, showing the negotiation of power between them.

Roberta’s examples showed the flexibility of the term, suggesting it was not referring to an institution, but the combination of the two papers gets us back to the thorny question of authors and audiences of charters as well. On the one hand, there are historians like Geoff Koziol arguing that every charter is a carefully calibrated demonstration of royal authority; on the other hand, Jon Jarrett is worrying about whether these processes (and the charters themselves) are being driven by granters or recipients: are the different titles etc used just because different recipients are responsible for drawing up the diplomas?

But there’s another issue with audiences: should we be talking about the audience for a charter or for charters? If the audience for a charter is essentially one-off (those present at a particular solemn occasion, plus later readers) then why don’t all charters aim for maximum impressiveness? If this is a ruler’s big chance to show how impressive he/she is, surely they should go for broke every time? Now possibly they don’t always have the parchment and high-quality scribes available to produce a first-class looking diploma, but terms like “consors regni” are cheap and easy to add. And yet they don’t get added automatically to every charter, just as Geoffrey V doesn’t always call himself the son of the king of Jerusalem.

I think this means that if we’re going to see charters as a language deliberately controlled by the granters, we’re going to have to presume a common audience for a whole sequence of charters, not just one. Language gets dulled by repetition, and using every possible title in every charter is the charter diplomatic equivalent of shouting all the time. Maybe we need to turn this analysis of the political language of charters round and ask why some phrases don’t get used all the time and what that may tell us about the audiences for different charters of the same ruler.

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24 thoughts on “Charters as a political language

  1. Thank you for this most thoughtful commentary. I’m sure you quite right in on all counts here. Just a couple of rather ill-formulated thoughts. Firstly, as to variety: I’m sure that varying things up was important, though the issue is then one of how common these documents actually were (Koziol, for example would see them as quite rare). Would it really get boring to hear and see much the same thing two or three times a year? Or was this happening every week? (Do we get bored at graduation ceremonies just because they are repetitive?) And secondly, I think you’re right to draw attention to the issue of what is not said (again, Koziol would also see this as key): it is in deviations from the diplomatic norm that we can find the most interesting material, be it in the form of saying something unusual or not saying something which would normally be said. I tend to think of these documents as being not only symbols, but part of an on-going dialogue between the ruler and his people in which variations and changes would have been recognised (after all, older diplomas were often presented and read aloud before being renewed). In this sense, we can only hear half of the conversation and have to think hard about what else might have been going on behind the scenes (here is where Jon’s recipient influence comes in).

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  2. “(Do we get bored at graduation ceremonies just because they are repetitive?)”

    I can’t speak for graduations, but having sung at three baccalaureate services a year for several years, my answer would be: Yes.

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  3. Well, perhaps that wasn’t the best example. As a member of staff, I must admit that they do get quite mind-numbing at times. On the other hand, they remain immensely popular with students and parents, despite the fact that three-quarters of the ceremony simply involves the graduands walking up one after another to receive the same certificate in the same manner. What matters is that it is a special moment for the individual receiving the document, and I imagine that being granted charters might not have been so very different.

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    • I know nothing about charters, but as rephrased your comment strikes me as quite plausible. Not only is it a “special moment” for the recipients, but we might even imagine that they would like the ceremony, down to the wording, to resemble those celebrated in the past: We’re getting a charter just like So-and-so got! (As I was handed my diploma with the same ritual, and in the same space, as so many graduates before me . . .)

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  4. “If the audience for a charter is essentially one-off (those present at a particular solemn occasion, plus later readers) then why don’t all charters aim for maximum impressiveness? If this is a ruler’s big chance to show how impressive he/she is, surely they should go for broke every time? Now possibly they don’t always have the parchment and high-quality scribes available to produce a first-class looking diploma, but terms like “consors regni” are cheap and easy to add. And yet they don’t get added automatically to every charter, just as Geoffrey V doesn’t always call himself the son of the king of Jerusalem.”

    I think that some of this variation is in the generation of the record. If all charters of a ruler are generated by his own writing-office and scribes then, yes, entitulature should reflect policy, but that is almost never the case. Even if the original document was so generated, rather than being written on site by the recipient’s or recipient institution’s clerics, we usually don’t have that version but a cartulary copy. Since in occasional cases, more usually at sub-royal level but not always, we can show that both issuer and recipient got copies of charters in some transactions (usually because both somehow wind up with the beneficiary archive) we can’t be sure in individual copies’ cases that what we have is the `official’ version, rather than a home-brewed report of that version. The fact that sometimes the `original’ was brewed in that fashion (in an Anglo-Saxon context, is it Malmesbury that Simon Keynes has to concede wrote its own charters during Æthelred II’s reign even though Simon argues he had a chancery?) only simplifies what is almost always a question that needs answering before we can get much out of who was calling whom what.

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    • As always, Jon, you make a number of very good points. I just have two quick things to add. First, Simon never uses the term chancery, precisely because he considers this to be misleading in an Anglo-Saxon context (he speaks of ‘royal scribes’ instead, which I think you’ll agree is not quite the same thing). And second, you’re quite right that he acknowledges the existence of recipient/local production. During Æthelred’s reign he detects evidence of this at the New Minster, Winchester, but I suspect you have the ‘Dunstan B’ charters in mind, which were probably produced at Glastonbury during the 950s and 60s.

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      • Well, to be honest, I think it’s impressive that you are so well acquainted with Simon’s arguments in the first place! You’ll be happy to hear that he was encouraging all present at the Charters Symposium on Wednesday to look out for your forthcoming ‘Problems and Possibilities’ volume.

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    • You could also mention the Wissembourg charters where multiple copies are recorded in the cartulary, all different. Besides the question of what the third copy was for, the existence of these variations might reflect the fact that different parties could have different versions of the same document, either due to survival boredom/inattention or due to different requirements of the ultimate possessors of the individual copies. I have just become horribly aware that I know no early medieval source that specifies that multiple copies of a charter should have the same text; this looks worryingly like a modern legalistic interpretation.

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    • You could also mention the Wissembourg charters where multiple copies are recorded in the cartulary, all different. Besides the question of what the third copy was for, the existence of these variations might reflect the fact that different parties could have different versions of the same document, either due to survival boredom/inattention or due to different requirements of the ultimate possessors of the individual copies. I have just become horribly aware that I know no early medieval source that specifies that multiple copies of a charter should have the same text; this looks worryingly like a modern legalistic interpretation.

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    • You could also mention the Wissembourg charters where multiple copies are recorded in the cartulary, all different. Besides the question of what the third copy was for, the existence of these variations might reflect the fact that different parties could have different versions of the same document, either due to survival boredom/inattention or due to different requirements of the ultimate possessors of the individual copies. I have just become horribly aware that I know no early medieval source that specifies that multiple copies of a charter should have the same text; this looks worryingly like a modern legalistic interpretation.

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    • You could also mention the Wissembourg charters where multiple copies are recorded in the cartulary, all different. Besides the question of what the third copy was for, the existence of these variations might reflect the fact that different parties could have different versions of the same document, either due to survival boredom/inattention or due to different requirements of the ultimate possessors of the individual copies. I have just become horribly aware that I know no early medieval source that specifies that multiple copies of a charter should have the same text; this looks worryingly like a modern legalistic interpretation.

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    • You could also mention the Wissembourg charters where multiple copies are recorded in the cartulary, all different. Besides the question of what the third copy was for, the existence of these variations might reflect the fact that different parties could have different versions of the same document, either due to survival boredom/inattention or due to different requirements of the ultimate possessors of the individual copies. I have just become horribly aware that I know no early medieval source that specifies that multiple copies of a charter should have the same text; this looks worryingly like a modern legalistic interpretation.

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      • Not completely. In a 815 ad Louis the Pious diplome, the notion of the similarity is implied, and the use of three coipies is also explained.

        “Cuius constituionis in unaquaque civitate ubi praedicti hispani habitare noscuntur , tres descriptiones esse volumus ; unam quam episcopus ipsius civitatis habeat , et alteram quam comes , et tertiam ipsi hispani qui in eodem loco conversantur. Exemplar vero earum in archivo palatii nostri censuimus reponendum , ut ex illius inspectione , si quando , ut fieri solet , aut ipsi se reclamaverint , aut comes vel quislibet alter contra eos causam habuerit , definitio litis fieri possit.”

        Not shure about this particular text version, but the concept is clear, copies are distributed among the implied and the local powers, and kept in a ‘central’ archive to help to resolve possible disputes.

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      • Well, but, that’s not quite the same thing, because the document there is not a charter, but a capitulary, and one moreover that’s supposed to resolve quite a long-running set of problems about the right of the so-called Hispani. Here, multiple copies were necessary precisely because the various parties didn’t agree about the matter, whereas one would hope that in a transaction the two parties did agree what was being transferred, at least while it was happening!

        Despite Allan’s touching faith, I know far less of the Wissembourg documents than he does, having merely raided them for formulae a long time ago, so I had missed the multiple copies. That raises a whole lot of questions, doesn’t it? We can, as you do, Allan, explain the existence of tailor-made originals OK; but why on earth do we have all those versions in a cartulary? Because even the monks no longer knew which was their one? But even then, why wouldn’t you just pick the best one… ?

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      • Oh, well, yes, but where’s the evidence of separate procedures for ‘charters’ or ‘capitularies’ ? Isn’t that a ‘modern legalistic interpretation’ in Allan’s terms?

        Note that the text states that copies (in triads) are kept in every city (bishop+count) and for every hispani group, that does not fits well with an exceptional case, specially when we have clear evidences of local archives (just as the text states). Note also that copies were not made because the parts disagree, that’s consubstantial in a dispute, but just because hispani were in diffrerent geographic locations. So the question imo could be: What was the purpouse of those local archives, or conversely, how they were used? Only to keep ‘important’ documents or maybe for more mundane matters ?

        As for the reason about why more than one version of a text ends in a cartulary, why it has to be a single one? There can be almost infinite possibilities, all different for every cartulary … cannot?

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      • I agree that the suggestion that there would be suitable archives in every city where there were Hispani is interesting, but I’m not sure if that makes them `local’, and there are multiple copies in each of these locations. In fact that line has always confused me, because it seems to presuppose a single place in each civitas where Hispani could consult this document that was not either of the cathedral or the comital residence. Did they all have to choose a boss Hispanus (or indeed Hispana) and go round to his or hers if they needed to check? I suppose, rather, that the idea was that there was somewhere a reference copy so that no one side could falsify their terms. Obviously, if two parties came into dispute, each might accuse the other of having changed their copy of the ruling, so there was supposed to be a third, ‘neutral’, copy which could be used to test that.

        That seems to me to be an unusual procedure, in the first place because Louis the Pious needed to specify it, but secondly because in an ordinary transaction we would expect at most two copies, one for each party. Now of course it had not always been thus, because not that long before a third copy, or at least a notice, would have been deposited in the gesta municipalia for exactly the same reason. But in 816 it seems to me that if any archive is doing that job, it would be either the cathedral or the count’s, don’t you think? So again this expectation of a third archive is strange to me. It seems to me that that must have been some private individual’s archive, rather than that we have an entire public institution of which there is otherwise no trace. (And there’s the usual problem, also, with capitularies, which is that it orders this to be done, but we don’t know that it was; the document only survives via Narbonne’s lost cartulary…)

        As for the cartulary copies, well, I take the purpose of making a cartulary to be to establish a definitive and perhaps organised version of a large group of charters. If you keep plural versions of a text, it can’t be definitive. Surely one would have best represented whatever the cartulary-makers would want to claim, at which rate, why keep the others? They would undermine any claims made with the ‘best’ version! (But I’d actually quite like to be argued out of this position, as it seems to me to assume quite a lot about the purposes of cartularies…)

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      • Well, the text is clear, bishop and counts had they own archives, and yes, hispani groups were probably organized at the local level, at least, as to be able to be the recipients of the thid copy (that’s somehow in line with the hispani-maior, hispani-minor differences). Maybe in other contexts where bishop and count were expected to fully agree, there could be a single repository, but, that’s not what the text says, so, at least in this case the third copy was needed because the ‘institutional side’ was two sided (bishop & count). So , yes, we esentially agree on the existence of other (third) archives, not a concept specially new, quite the contrary. I am not sure if this practice of to keep a ‘neutral’ copy was or wasn’t reproduced at the (for example) county level, so individual transactions (or at least important ones) were registered in the archives of local powers (I am thinking for example of church consecrations, didn’t want the bishop to have a bishopric copy of the taxes of each parrochia? I suppouse, yes, but it seems that evidence is small). At this level, there seems to be a plurality of archives, so I don’t know how they could function as a whole.

        Now, in all these contexts, the notion of to try to avoid false or altered versions is common; not that alterations does not occur, quite the contrary, but because there are explicit provisions to address this problem.

        As for the cartuaries, probably multiple copies were held because they were not created to be the recipients of the ‘best’ version of each document, but that’s something specific to each cartulary. Respect of the past or simply archivistic completness can also be (broader) motives, i suppouse… or not, maybe simply local interests when they were created…?

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  5. This may seem off topic, but perhaps it is not. I am wantonly pilfering the below from my wife’s expertise.

    For much of the 18th and 19th centuries, there were very standard ways of performing Shakespeare. Certain stock actions and re-actions (perhaps most (in-)famously at the arrival of the ghost in Hamlet) required from the actors at certain points in each play. None of these were written into the plays themselves, but were the understood, accepted and expected “performed” play. The first few times that actors/directors had the timerity to change the stock performance saw riots break out at the theatres. This was simply unacceptable novelty that could not be permitted.

    I suspect that the performance of charter granting was much the same. No one would want (in the ordinry course) their charter or its performance to deviate from the norm. It was being within the norm that lent it its strength and acceptance. If you were to deviate it would be with extra witnesses, a third bishop in attendance, an extra-holy relic to swear by and so on.

    To accept a charter without the right number of witnesses, or with less than the normal formalities and performance would have been to accept a charter that you knew (before it was even in your hands) to be substantially less than the charters given to others. It was a sign of a weak bargaining position.

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    • To accept a charter without the right number of witnesses, or with less than the normal formalities and performance would have been to accept a charter that you knew (before it was even in your hands) to be substantially less than the charters given to others. It was a sign of a weak bargaining position.

      OK, but such charters do exist. Somewhat to the surprise of those who work on other areas, in (pre-)Catalonia, almost all charters have three witnesses and only three. You are quite right that people sometimes add more, either because several interests need to be represented or just because they could and wanted to show that, I expect; only the former is really demonstrable and that not often. But there are also a few charters in the area with only two witnesses, or sometimes only one. Again, I think that your suggestion assumes that a charter is somehow something one wins in a contest with the other party, whereas presumably it was usually something both parties had made in collaboration, probably before or after a slap-up meal and the clonking of wooden cups of wine. My guess is that we have the short-weight ones exactly because there was enough goodwill between transactors, witness and scribe that everyone expected that would do. At that rate, it would be the ones where everyone was carted in that would suggest some difficulty over the arrangement…

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  6. I’m just coming from a lawyer’s perspective – if you are content to walk away with a document that is less than it should be, it is either because you don’t know any better, or you have no choice. For all we know the grantor(s) of the charter(s) with one witness were thinking to themselves – “it’s not worth the paper its written on”. It’s easy to be generous when its unenforcable.

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  7. Thanks for all your comments – sorry I’ve not replied. I’ve been off at a conference in Reims, discussing how to manage God and drinking too much champagne! But now back to real life and charters…

    I’ve recently worked my way through 100 or more of the charters from the Wissembourg cartulary, though I’m gutting them for information for the database, rather than appreciating each one as a special snowflake, as a true charter-lover would do. And I’m less and less convinced that the modern categories of “legal document” or authoritative record really bear much relationship to what’s going on. The Wissembourg cartulary was compiled about 850, so it’s reflecting Carolingian practice and descendants of the original donors may still have been around in many cases. But as documents that actually tell you who gets what, the charters from 768-814 are mostly pretty hopeless. A surprising number simply say that someone gives “whatever I seem to have at place X”, and aspects of legal precision that you might expect just aren’t there. Boundary clauses are rare and the names given are overwhelmingly just single names, even when these are very common. (By contrast, Italian charters at this point, which my colleague Gianmarco is inputting, often include patronymics or places of origin). I can accept the possibility of an oral tradition of performance that might mean you don’t have to write a lot of the procedure down. But if the monastery is not writing down the full details of the property they receive or making sure that the witnesses can be located subsequently, that suggests they have a very different concept of the legal role of a charter from ours.

    It’s not entirely clear on what principles the cartulary is organised (there are some geographical/personal clusters, but they aren’t entirely consistent) and where you have multiple copies they tend not to be together, so it’s possible that the duplication was overlooked. But there are certainly cases where two copies of the same charter (presumed to be that of each party) have slightly different witness lists. In no 26, a donation by the couple Weriland and Herilind, the charter ends: “Testes: Uuerilant. Uuahoni. Reginbertus. Irmbertus.” The second version of this, no. 105, ends “Signum Uuerilandi qui hanc donationem fieri rogauit. Testes: †Uuahho. †Fartgern. †Reginbraht. †Irmbraht. †Hatto.”

    So as well as telling you that the scribe (Wolfhart) can’t spell and that some poor Frank went round with the name of Fartgern, the two copies of the charter were almost certainly slightly but significantly different right from the start. Checking back quickly, I don’t think there are any triple transmissions from my period – I think the few that exist are Merovingian, and maybe even late seventh century. (I don’t have a complete copy of the latest edition to hand). I don’t want to say that the cartulary scribes just mechanically copied everything into their codex, because there are occasions where formulae get shortened or eschatols are omitted. But I do wonder whether their aim is less for authoritative texts than to record all the information that might be of use, even if it means duplication.

    Maybe part of the problem is that we’re too hung up with an idea of absolute legal authority and watertight documentary evidence. Both the wording of the original Wissembourg charters and their copying into a cartulary suggest that we’re back to something more like authorityness. The amount of property given in the charters (almost all of which are drawn up by Wissembourg scribes) and the number of witnesses mentioned don’t seem closely related. If Mark’s argument is correct, you’d expect there to be very few witnesses when powerful people are donating to Wissembourg (so that they can later repudiate the gift) and you simply don’t see that.

    Conversely, there are some charters with relatively small donations, but not many witnesses, suggesting relatively humble donors. In those cases, Wissembourg could presumably have insisted on a larger number of witnesses if they really needed them, but they simply didn’t bother. I think that’s the point: the monastery doesn’t look to be pursuing options that they could have taken as the ones writing the charters. Instead, it seems to have been enough for them that they had a text that gave them a plausible claim on a piece of land. Presumably they knew that was enough to allow them to win a dispute if they were in royal favour and that no legal claim was much use if you had a judge who was against you or an opponent who was going to ignore a court’s decision.

    As for Louis the Pious’ capitulary from 815, isn’t the key point there that he needs to make sure that there are multiple copies kept, i.e. he can’t assume that it’s being done automatically? Notoriously, there isn’t a central archive of capitularies at the palace, which is why Ansegesis’ collection is so important. I can’t think of any royal pronouncement, however, that says that legal texts, charters etc have to be copied accurately. Now there might be an assumption that you shouldn’t muck about with it too much, but given the way that Carolingian authors and scribes reckon any text can be changed to suit their needs, I think “mostly the same content” or the “same overall effect” may be about as much as they would have aimed for.

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    • Notoriously, there isn’t a central archive of capitularies at the palace, which is why Ansegesis’ collection is so important.

      Excuse my ignorance on carolingian diplomacy, but the Louis capitulary is explicit: Exemplar vero earum in archivo palatii nostri censuimus reponendum. I suppouse the case to be that no archive has survived to this day, but they surely existed then…?

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      • I was being a bit imprecise there – there’s very limited evidence for there being some kind of palace archive under Charlemagne and a bit more under Louis the Pious. (Janet L. Nelson, 1990. “Literacy in Carolingian government,” In The uses of literacy in early mediaeval Europe, edited by Rosamond McKitterick, 258-296. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, discusses this (pp. 286-289).

        However, Charles the Bald’s capitularies cite Ansegesis’ collection of Charlemagne’s and Louis’ capitularies, rather than the originals or any official collection, which suggests that any palace archive had been dispersed by his reign. So it would be more accurate to say that there wasn’t an effective central archive, i.e. one that endures for more than a few decades.

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