Frederic Cheyette

title.none: Chastang, Lire, ecrire, transcrire (Frederic Cheyette)

identifier.other: baj9928.0412.021 04.12.21

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Frederic Cheyette, Amherst College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Chastang, Pierre. Lire, ecrire, transcrire: Le travail des redacteurs de cartulaires en Bas-Languedoc (XI - XIII siecles). Paris: Editions du comite des travaux historiques et scientifiques, 2001. Pp. 459. ISBN: $51.00 2-7355-0472-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.12.21

Chastang, Pierre. Lire, ecrire, transcrire: Le travail des redacteurs de cartulaires en Bas-Languedoc (XI - XIII siecles). Paris: Editions du comite des travaux historiques et scientifiques, 2001. Pp. 459. ISBN: $51.00 2-7355-0472-7.

Reviewed by:

Frederic Cheyette
Amherst College

Over the last half century, historians of Western Europe have turned increasingly to the documents contained mostly in ecclesiastical but also in a few extant lay cartularies to explore the social, economic and legal history of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Outside of Spain and a few cities of Italy, original charters and diplomas from these centuries are relatively rare, and but a very small number survive from before the year 1000. Copies are largely what remain.

The most valuable are copies made in the Middle Ages, or seventeenth- and eighteenth-century copies of those copies. For the most part, historians have treated these medieval "secondary" records as if they represented a random selection of all that once gathered dust in the archives of the monasteries, chapter houses, bishoprics and princely houses for which the cartularies were prepared. This easy acceptance of cartularies as unproblematic sources has long been encouraged by the peculiar way in which most of them have been edited for printing. Instead of presenting the documents in the cartularies in the order in which they appear in the manuscripts, editors long followed the rationalizing principles of nineteenth century positivist history and printed individual charters in chronological order, no matter what their manuscript context. Thus the important questions of source criticism have all been occulted by the very manner in which editors presented the documents to the reader: why were the individual cartularies constructed? what purposes did they serve? how did those purposes shape what was copied, what was left out, and what was re-composed? what were the historical, geographical, and institutional viewpoints of the cartulary creators to which the modern historian may unwittingly be tributary?

The objective of Chastang's thesis--a careful analysis of the organization and content of a small group of cartularies from southern France--is to show how one can go about answering these critical questions. His data base is composed of thirteen cartularies, five monastic (two each from Gellone and Aniane, one from Valmagne), three capitular (Agde, Nímes, Béziers), three episcopal (Agde, Narbonne, Maguelone), and two lay (Trencavels, Guilelms of Montpellier). Of these, Gellone, Aniane, and Agde occupy center stage; the remainder serve mainly for comparison or occasional additional detail. The two lay cartularies, regrettably, hardly appear at all. The text is not a sequential argument but rather a set of essays loosely gathered in the first part around the Gellone cartularies and in the second around those from Agde. Tacked on at the end are two short essays on personal dependence and servitude in the region of Agde that have only the most marginal connection to the body of the thesis. Some of the essays are essentially codicological descriptions; others are largely explications de texte in the most crabbed French academic manner. These will be of interest mainly to scholars who may find themselves using these same cartularies for their own research. Because of the loose structure of the book there is much overlapping and repetition. Nevertheless, much of the detail that Chastang presents serves arguments of much wider significance. These should demand the attention of any historian planning on using cartularies as a primary source, whatever the geographical location (and they are usefully summarized in the "General Conclusion," pp. 423-7).

One central argument is that cartularies served to create a memoria for their institutions. They should not be thought of as mirrors of reality, nor as routine compilations, nor should they be abstracted into representations of social structure. They were the product of institutional intentions and purposes filtered through the labors of the scribes who wrote them. They were formulated to represent particular conceptions of the past. Their images of the geographical and institutional landscape also served the particular needs and ideologies of the institutions for which they were created. A second central argument is that the contents of cartularies were shaped by changing ideas about the use and function of written documents. The earliest were created under the influence of the Gregorian reform and the role it gave to documents in creating an ideal past that reform was meant to recapture. By the mid-twelfth century the revival of Roman Law was giving a new and different importance to written documents when making claims and defending rights; the contents of cartularies changed accordingly.

For the Benedictine houses (Aniane and Gellone), the history represented in their cartularies fell into three periods: a partly mythical Carolingian beginning which forms the historical horizon and the reference point for renovatio; a period of decadence represented by a documentary vacuum; the period of renewal, which the cartulary writer considers continuous with his own time. The documents of the first period provide the structure framework for the gifts and quit-claims that come in the third period. They define the monasteries' sacred space. For Gellone they also defend the abbey's independence from the bishop of Maguelone and from the authority of Aniane (while for Aniane they support a claim to control over Gellone, with its property and its relics). To accomplish these purposes the Carolingian texts were re-composed to match contemporary claims to property and to allow archaic provisions to serve the needs of contemporary controversies. Chastang argues that the concept of "forgery" is inadequate to encompass this kind of re-composition or to understand it as a means of memory creation, since it assumes as its antithesis an idea of "authenticity" that emerges only with the revival of Roman Law a half-century later. At Gellone the re-composition of diplomas and charters went hand in hand with the writing of a life of Saint William; these two genres must be considered the products of the same purpose, the equivalent in the south of the monastic chronicles of the north. They were different ways of representing the monastic memory of its institutional past, filtered through the Gregorian ideology of renewal and the eleventh-century Benedictine image of a sacred space protected by the saints. Although the traditional relations of gift and counter-gift involving monastic property continued (Gellone no. 262, contemporary with the writing of the first cartulary, is a striking example), those on-going relationships do not serve to organize the cartulary. In contrast, the monastery's relationship to the greatest local families is clearly displayed.

Also re-composed in this early period are the charters that stand for the different properties that form the sacred lordship. In place of a complete dossier, a single document, often not the earliest, stands for all the rest. Sometimes it is adjusted to include elements from the other documents that are left out. In a striking and useful comparison, Chastang suggests that these documents were meant to serve as places in a "memory temple," a mnemonic device to remind the user of the relevant collection of charters in the monastic archive.

In contrast to this Benedictine image of history, the Cistercian image (in the Valmagne cartulary, only glancingly referred to) drew upon the hallowed story of settlement in the "desert," while the capitular historical horizon went no further back than the "restoration" of tithes and the creation of a capitular lordship separate from that of the bishop in the eleventh century. Only episcopal cartularies reached back to the Carolingian period, again with much re-composition in order to support claims to the bishops' developing urban lordships. Here again the middle period of "decadence" all but vanished.

Only with the revival of Roman Law around the mid-twelfth century did "authenticity" take on importance. Thus the later twelfth-century cartularies were careful to replicate the complete dossiers for the lands and rights that composed the institution's lordship. Institutional differences remained, however. Benedictine houses saw their lordships as a landscape of churches. Cathedral chapters saw theirs as rights and lands located in castra. Bishops saw theirs as urban lordships protected by networks of fidelities. Do these dossiers assembled in the cartularies present a complete inventory of ecclesiastical property? Chastang suggests in passing that they may not, that what was most important to record were the titles to property and rights that might still be contested.

Chastang's thesis is thus a strong reminder that even when we are reading the seemingly innocent texts of land conveyances we are seeing the past through political and religious ideological lenses, if only because of the triage that preserved some documents within hard bindings while others were left un-copied and subject to the ravages of time (and, in many regions, to the ravages of religious warriors and revolutionaries). What survives is not a random sample. He lets us understand clearly why so few charters survive from the ninth and tenth centuries, though references to such charters (for example in formal procedures to reconstitute lost archives) [[1]], and a handful of remaining originals [[2]] tell us that they once must have been plentiful. The "darkness" of the tenth century was the creation of the eleventh and twelfth. So, in all likelihood, was the image of decadence. It was a darkness of another sort, the Other against which the reformers could wage their battle.

If there are criticisms to be made of the book, apart from its very loose and somewhat incoherent structure, it would be that the author analyses only the documents contained in the cartularies. Other documents from Narbonne, for example, would have provided a strong additional argument to his discussion of the way re-worked Carolingian documents became authoritative (pp. 241 ff.). Other archiepiscopal documents would likewise have given the correct context for the odd appearance of an account of the condemnation of Adoptionism at the Council of Frankfort in 794 among the Carolingian diplomas in a surviving fragment of a Narbonne cartulary. Chastang associates this with Catharism (pp. 256-7). Much more likely is that it is connected to archbishop Guifred's continuing attempt to reassert control over subject Catalan bishoprics and prevent the creation of a new archdiocese of Tarragona. But these, and other details that could be mentioned, are mere quibbles.

There is an important lesson to be taken away from this book: it is that no medieval document, even those seemingly innocent collections called cartularies, should be exempt from thorough source-criticism.


[[1]] See Warren Brown, "When documents are destroyed or lost: lay people and archives in the early Middle Ages," Early Medieval Europe 11 no. 4 (2002): 337-366.

[[2]] For Narbonne, the earliest documents in BNF Mélanges Colbert 414, all the more significant for being conveyances between small lay landholders.