03.05.04, Kelly, Charters of Abingdon Abbey, Part 1; Miller, Charters of the New Minster, Winchester

Main Article Content

Adam J. Kosto

The Medieval Review baj9928.0305.004


Kelly, S. E.. Miller, Sean, ed.. Charters of Abingdon Abbey, Part 1. Anglo-Saxon Charters, vol. 7. Charters of the New Minster, Winchester. Anglo-Saxon Charters, v. 9. Oxford: Oxford: Oxford University Press, Oxford University Press, 2000. 2001. Pp. ccxxxii, 205. Pp. lxviii, 244. ISBN: 0-19-726217-1.
ISBN: 0-19-726223-6.

Reviewed by:
Adam J. Kosto
Columbia University

Hwaet! There are exciting goings on in the world of Anglo-Saxon diplomatics! (No, this reviewer has not lost his mind...) The corpus of Anglo-Saxon charters comprises somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500 Latin and vernacular documents from England before the year 1066. The vast majority of these survive not as original single-sheet documents, but as cartulary or antiquarian copies; perhaps a third of the total are forgeries. Since 1968, scholars have relied on the indispensable guide by Peter H. Sawyer, Anglo-Saxon Charters: An Annotated List and Bibliography (London, 1968), which lists manuscripts and printed editions for each charter along with references to the comments of various scholars as to its authenticity. While many charters have been published in small twentieth-century collections,[[1]] the only more comprehensive editions date back to the nineteenth century: the 1,369 documents in six volumes of John Mitchell Kemble, Codex diplomaticus aevi Saxonici (London, 1839-48), and the 1,354 documents in three volumes of Walter de Gray Birch, Cartularium Saxonicum: A Collection of Charters Relating to Anglo-Saxon History (London, 1885-93; index, 1899).[[2]] The most recent edition of Van Caenegem dismisses the first as "insatisfaisant," the second (which only contains charters up to 975) as "pas assez critique."[[3]]

In 1966, the British Academy and the Royal Historical Society officially began a project to publish a new edition of the corpus of Anglo-Saxon charters, defined as "all pre-Conquest title-deeds known to have survived, that is, all documents relating to grants of lands and liberties, whoever their grantor or grantee, whatever their diplomatic form (wills and memoranda as well as diplomas and writs, leases as well as grants in perpetuity), whether in Latin or the vernacular." The project includes unattached "bounds" (vernacular descriptions of property limits), but excludes items that do not refer to property rights, such as manumissions, letters, conciliar acta, and legal texts. The decision was made to organize the edition by the medieval archives in which the documents were preserved (rather than by date, by geographical region, or by modern archive). The project has identified around seventy such archives, only eight of which are associated with fifty or more documents. The first volume, on the charters of Rochester, appeared in 1973 and included thirty-seven documents. In the foreword to that volume, Christopher Cheney wrote that "it is hoped to produce fascicules at a steady rate of one each year." His unbridled optimism was not warranted. Six years passed before the publication of the next volume, on Burton Abbey (38 documents), and another nine before the next, on Sherborne (22 documents).[[4]]

Since the mid-nineties, however, the project has taken off, principally due to the labor of its full-time research officer since 1991, Dr. Susan E. Kelly. In 1995 there appeared her editions of the charters of St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury, and Minster-in-Thanet (fifty-three documents in one volume) and Shaftesbury Abbey (thirty documents), followed quickly by the charters of Selsey (twenty-one documents) in 1998.[[5]] The publication of the 151 Abingdon documents marks the appearance of the first of the four major archives, those with more than 150 documents. Eleven other volumes have been announced, including the three other major archives: Christ Church, Canterbury; the Old Minster, Winchester; and Worcester. The final edition is projected to comprise around thirty volumes. The current chair of the Joint Committee, Professor Nicholas Brooks, expressed the determination that "the critical edition of the entire corpus should be achieved by this generation of scholars."[[6]] The current vitality of the project bodes well for the achievement of that goal. The two volumes reviewed here are excellent examples of the wisdom of the organization of the charter project as a whole and the skill of its associated personnel.

But there is more. The recent publications have coincided with the rapid proliferation of electronic resources for medieval studies. The Anglo-Saxon charter project has established an impressive website, affectionately named Kemble (http://www.trin.cam.ac.uk/sdk13/chartwww/ charthome.html), which includes, among other things: a revised, electronic version of Sawyer's Anglo-Saxon Charters (a second print edition has been announced); a searchable database of the corpus of Anglo-Saxon charters; pre-publication versions of recently discovered charters; digital images of original single-sheet documents; lists of the tables in Simon Keynes's "Atlas of Attestations in Anglo-Saxon Charters" (of which a print edition has also been announced); and dozens of other lists, bibliographies, and links to other websites. Notable among the latter are: the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England (Kings College, London) (http://www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/pase/pase. htm), a comprehensive biographical register of the recorded inhabitants of Anglo-Saxon England; the Corpus of Early Medieval Coin Finds (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge) (http://www-cm.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/emc); and the websites of two scholars intimately involved with the charter project, Dr. Sean Miller (http://www.anglo-saxons.net/hwaet) and the Anglo-Saxon Index of Dr. Simon Keynes (http://www.trin.cam.ac.uk/sdk13). The facts that portions of these sites remain "under construction" and that their maintenance is less than perfect is more than compensated for by the immense volume of top quality scholarship that they make accessible as never before.

To return to the editions: Abingdon Abbey, in Berkshire, was "refounded" by King Eadred c. 950 on the site of an abandoned minster that traditionally dates back to the seventh century; its first abbot was Aethelwold, later bishop of Winchester. From the medieval archive there survive 149 documents that purport to date from before the Norman Conquest. Of these, 139 are Latin royal diplomas, and two are vernacular royal writs. Only nine of the texts survive in single-sheet form, and of these only seven are thought to be originals. The majority of texts have been recovered from the two surviving versions of the Abingdon Chronicle (one compiled c. 1170, the other, more extensive, in the thirteenth century) and a set of sixteenth-century antiquarian transcriptions. The twelfth-century version of the chronicle-cartulary contains a separate list of sixty vernacular boundary clauses, all but two of which can be associated with surviving diplomas (these are printed as documents 150 and 151).

Kelly's 183-page introduction to her edition of this material includes brief histories of the abbey and its archive, along with detailed discussions of the manuscripts, the authenticity of the charters, the development of the landed endowment of the abbey, the history of the pre-Aethelwoldian minster, and the abbots of Abingdon. She also provides a list of the edited charters and a concordance with Sawyer, Kemble, Birch, and other editions. Each charter edited is followed by a meticulous discussion of its authenticity, diplomatic features, palaeography (where appropriate), anthroponymy, toponymy, philology, and subject matter. Two appendices calendar deperdita and the detached vernacular bounds. Indices and glossaries of personal names, place-names, words and personal names used in boundary clauses, Latin terms, and diplomatic features (verbal invocations and proems, dispositive words, and royal styles) round out the volume. Most of these features are standard for volumes in the series.

The logic behind the archival organization of the corpus is that it will allow a better understanding of house diplomatic styles (and thus aid in the identification of forgeries) and archival practices, as well as of the development of the landed endowment of individual institutions. Kelly's Abingdon volume proves the merit of this approach on both counts. Many of the Abingdon royal diplomas show an unusual degree of diplomatic interrelatedness, suggesting that they were in fact drawn up at the abbey. The solid archival context that Kelly is able to provide lends weight to her contributions to the scholarly battles over the authenticity of individual charters. She also plunges into the debate over the existence and nature of an Anglo-Saxon royal "chancery" in the tenth century, in which the Abingdon documents (which include three of the six "Orthodoxorum" charters) necessarily play a crucial role. Her subtle conclusion rejects both extremes in the debate: "Abingdon may have had a legitimate involvement with centralised charter-production in the early years of [Edgar's] reign, which could have carried over into independent production in certain circumstances in the following decade" (cxxv). As for the question of Abingdon's estates, the size of the archive allows Kelly to make a strong argument for active management of the endowment, especially through consolidation in the first half of the eleventh century. More interesting, however, is her discussion of the "alien" charters -- royal grants to laymen of land with no obvious connection to the abbey's holdings. She rejects the idea that the abbey served as a safe deposit site for the title-deeds of local magnates in favor of the conclusion that the abbey did have an interest in the lands in question. These charters, she argues, offer evidence for the abbey's "dynamic inter-relationship" with its neighbors -- a situation she compares to Cluny as described by Barbara Rosenwein (cxcii). Combined with the commentary provided for each charter, Kelly's introduction is a remarkable illustration of possibilities of the diplomatic method and of the continued importance of its fundamental task: the discrimen veri ac falsi. The sections on the authenticity of charters (lxvii-cxxxi) and the landed endowment (cxxxi-cxcii) can stand alone as an important contribution to the history of documentary production and archival practice.

With only thirty-four charters and a 38-page introduction, Sean Miller's edition of the charters of New Minster, Winchester, which began life as a Cambridge Ph.D. thesis under the direction of Simon Keynes, is a much less weighty study. The picture that he is able to paint of the endowment, for example, is much sketchier. Nevertheless, the edition of and commentary on the individual documents is as skillful, and the volume as a whole provides its own set of interesting lessons.

The New Minster was founded by Edward the Elder in 901, in direct competition with the Old Minster, the episcopal see. It underwent reform in 964 (the secular clergy was replaced by monks from Abingdon), saw its abbot (Aethelgar) named archbishop of Canterbury in 988, fell on hard times after the Conquest, and ultimately moved to a new site and acquired a new name, Hyde Abbey. Of the thirty-four documents that survive from the New Minster archive, twenty are royal diplomas. Only four of the charters are single sheets, three of which are originals. The earliest witness for twenty of the charters is the early-fifteenth-century Liber Abbatiae. A number of the individual documents are noteworthy, such as the wills of Kings Alfred and Eadred, and the foundation charter of the minster, which survives as an illuminated booklet written in gold letters. Alfred's will and part of another text survive in the pre-Conquest hand of the New Minster Liber Vitae. The foundation charter is crucial for the study both of tenth-century Anglo-Saxon manuscript production and of Edgar's monastic reforms. But it is in the study of the textual transmission of the various documents that the project's archival approach again bears fruit. The Liber Abbatiae includes Middle English and Latin translations both of complete vernacular documents and of vernacular boundary clauses in Latin documents. Miller applies considerable skills in palaeography and in Old and Middle English philology in identifying scribal misreadings of pre-Conquest exemplars and in singling out forgeries.

With these two volumes, the Anglo-Saxon charter project has now provided definitive editions of about 25 percent of the corpus. Most of the work thus still lies in the future. It is already clear, however, that the edition and its accompanying research tools will provide an enormous stimulus to the study of the Anglo-Saxon world and serve as a monumental contribution to the study of the Early Middle Ages.


[[1]] Notably the vernacular texts: Dorothy Whitelock, ed., Anglo-Saxon Wills (Cambridge, 1930), 39 documents; Agnes J. Robertson, ed., Anglo-Saxon Charters (Cambridge, 1939, 2nd ed., 1956), 135 documents; Florence E. Harmer, Anglo-Saxon Writs (Manchester, 1952), 121 documents.

[[2]] One might also add Hubert Pierquin, Recueil général des chartes anglo-saxonnes: Les Saxons en Angleterre (604-1061) (Paris, 1912), 655 documents.

[[3]] Raoul C. Van Caenegem, Introduction aux sources de l'histoire médiévale, new ed. (Turnhout, 1997), 307.

[[4]] Alistair Campbell, ed., Charters of Rochester, Anglo-Saxon Charters 1 (London, 1973), quotations at vi, vii; Peter H. Sawyer, ed., Charters of Burton Abbey, Anglo-Saxon Charters 2 (London, 1979); Mary Anne O'Donovan, Charters of Sherborne, Anglo-Saxon Charters 3 (London, 1988).

[[5]] Susan E. Kelly, ed., Charters of St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury, and Minster-in-Thanet, Anglo-Saxon Charters 4 (Oxford, 1995); eadem, ed., Charters of Shaftesbury Abbey, Anglo-Saxon Charters 5 (Oxford, 1995); eadem, ed., Charters of Selsey, Anglo-Saxon Charters 6 (Oxford, 1998).

[[6]] Kelly, ed., Charters of St Augustine's Abbey, viii.

Article Details

Author Biography

Adam J. Kosto

Columbia University