10.05.17, Schulte, Mostert, and van Renswoude, Strategies of Writing

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Jonathan Herold

The Medieval Review 10.05.17

Schulte, Petra, Marco Mostert, and Irene van Renswoude, eds.. Strategies of Writing. Studies on Text and Trust in the Middle Ages: Papers from "Trust in Writing in the Middle Ages". Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 13. Turnhout: Brepols, 2008. Pp. 413. ISBN: 9782503517582.

Reviewed by:
Jonathan Herold
University of Toronto

This volume contains twenty papers presented in November of 2002 at a Utrecht workshop investigating "Trust in Writing in the Middle Ages." The workshop was inspired in part by the ninth chapter of Michael Clanchy's seminal study, From Memory to Written Record, in which he explored how writing came to be regarded increasingly as a "trustworthy" vehicle for socio-legal interaction in England over the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; the present collection of essays is in fact dedicated to Professor Clanchy. Since the publication of his book in 1979, a generation of scholars have compared the processes that he identified occurring in England with observable developments in pragmatic literacy occurring in different regions and eras of medieval Europe; Clanchy himself revised his study in 1989 and (according to the editors of the volume here under review) is currently working on a third edition that will both incorporate the author's more recent research and address aspects of the research undertaken by others that his original work inspired. As the editors of this volume note, however, the fundamental concept of "trust" assumed in much of this work has not attracted much serious attention by historians. "Trust", the seemingly ineffable byproduct of various social and cultural structures that promote or facilitate cooperation and reliance, when it is referred to at all in most historical scholarship, is commonly assumed to be not so much an intellectual attitude or social response as an environmental condition. The papers in this collection explore the dimensions of medieval concepts of "trust" and "trustworthiness" and examine the ways in which medieval writers and record-keepers sought to establish the trustworthiness of the written instruments, documents, memoranda and narratives that they produced. In the course of their studies, the contributors also manage to probe historical attitudes regarding trust in written communication from antiquity to the present day.

Part One of this collection, entitled "'Trust' and 'Writing'," addresses readers' fundamental understanding of medieval ideas related to "trust" and the manipulation of those conceptions and expectations in the creation and interpretation of medieval memoranda. Petra Schulte's paper, "Fides publica: die Dekonstrucktion eines Forschungsbegriffes," is the most confrontational of the two papers in this section of the volume, as she challenges the concept of fides publica set forth in Ahasuer von Brandt's Werkzeug des Historikers as anachronistic: the term, she notes, was not used to describe documentary evidence at any time during the Middle Ages (16). Schulte persuasively surveys the adoption of fides publica as a construct drawn from modern legal parlance and broadly projected upon medieval evidence within the context of nineteenth-century state-development. Anachronistic conceptions of textual trustworthiness is a topic that Marco Mostert also addresses in his contribution, "Forgery and Trust." Mostert observes that the distinction between "literate" and "illiterate" is too imprecise to be useful for analyzing the use of writing in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Since literate mentalities develop along a continuum of at least four different "registers of literacy"--"illiterate, semi-illiterate, semi-literate and literate"--these registers admit considerable variation in understanding what written texts represent (40-44). Similarly, ancient and medieval notions of "truth" and "deceit" were subject to change as literate mentalities developed along increasingly uniform lines throughout the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The willingness of medieval literates to accept the authority of documentary and memorial texts that modern diplomatists regard as "forgeries," therefore, suggests that medieval readers understood what those texts represented and how they represented them in a fundamentally different way: the issues for modern diplomatists become less matters of mendacity or scribal incompetence on the part of medieval record-keepers and more matters of the medieval reception of documentary texts and their historical interpretation. Both Schulte and Mostert discuss the distinctions between medieval and modern standards of trust in writing in commendable detail; these are important essays that might engage anyone interested in the study of medieval diplomatics.

The contributions in the second through sixth parts of this collection focus on specific categories of medieval written records and communiqués. Charters are the topic of Part Two, and the four papers included here address aspects of their authentication and probative value during the Early and High Middle Ages. Peter Worm's paper, "From Subscription to Seal: the Growing Importance of Seals as Signs of Authenticity in Early Medieval Royal Charters," examines the development of the modes of authentication employed by early medieval continental chanceries. Karl Heidecker analyzes the form and content of two charters from Cluny to argue for the existence of what Michael Clanchy referred to as a "literate mentality" among members of the aristocracy of southern Burgundy and to challenge the view articulated by Alain de Boüard in his Manuel de diplomatique de franaise et pontificale that charters had lost their evidentiary power in eleventh-century France. Brigitte Resl's paper investigates the use of illustrations in early twelfth-century southern Italian cartularies to support memory and convey authenticity to their earliest contents by providing a visual depiction of acts undertaken in the distant past or the parties to those acts, and J. W. J. Burgers considers the extent to which the perception of the solemn charter as a "status symbol" (123) led to its adoption as a trustworthy mode of commemorating acts of benefaction in the County of Holland during the late eleventh and twelfth centuries.

Part Three of this collection moves consideration of trust in writing beyond instrumental and diplomatic modes into the realm of literary representation. The two studies in this section focus on strategies of conveying trustworthiness in late medieval chronicles. Oliver Plessow's contribution, "Mechanisms of Authentication in Late Medieval North German Chronicles," surveys the rhetorical strategies employed in the episcopal gesta of Bremen, Münster and Osnabrück: these include consideration of various "traditional" modes of authentication drawn from a variety of literary and historiographic genres, such as the chroniclers' use of documentation, the presentation of named individuals of various status, the employment of narrative passages, reported dialogue and representation of "eye-witness" or authorial testimony. Jeannette Rauschert's paper examines the illustrations that appear in the early sixteenth-century Swiss chronicle of Diebold Schilling of Luzern, arguing that these illustrations both reinforce the accounts of events in the chronicle text itself and depict the developing acceptance of the trustworthiness of legal and socio-political acts based on written records that are referred to in its narrative.

Part Four delves into the realm of medieval correspondence in the high and later Middle Ages. Uta Kleine assesses the use and preservation of the diplomatic correspondence of Pope Innocent III in order to assess the transformation of original, official instrumental acta into the documentary "Lehr-Stück" recorded in the registers, cartularies and archives of their recipients, where, although stripped of the evidentiary power of original documents, they nevertheless became the basis for local historical memory. Michael Jucker's paper, "Trust and Mistrust in Letters: Late Medieval Diplomacy and its Communication Practices," examines the proliferation of epistolary communication in diplomatic correspondence during the later Middle Ages which, he argues, occurred despite general recognition of the many reasons for distrusting the written medium. Increased reliance on written correspondence in the diplomatic communication between regions of the Swiss Confederation during the fifteenth century was accompanied by increased use of a variety of external security measures (such as the production and dispatch of letters in multiple copies to be delivered by liveried messengers, message registration and numbering, employment of ciphers, sealing, receipt confirmations, etc.), resulting in a reciprocal, complex interplay of literate, oral, symbolic and ritualized modes of authentication and communication that reinforced trust in the contents of written messages exchanged among envoys and governments.

The essays in Part Five consider the role of writing in more broadly-construed political contexts. Christoph Friedrich Weber examines the political implications of the symbolic use of written artifacts, arguing that the University of Paris ritualized the use of its royal charter during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries to create an institutional framework for the resolution of "town and gown" disputes, even as the French monarchy used its power to grant and confirm the university's royal charter to express royal power. Christoph Dartmann's paper discusses the role of private charters and written treaties to govern political interactions among members of Italian city communes, demonstrating that even in the most traditionally literate region of medieval Europe the adoption or recognition of the provisions of a given document were nevertheless dictated by the ritualized public assemblies that legitimized them. Anna Adamska's contribution, "Waging War and making Peace with Written Documents: The Kingdom of Poland against the Teutonic Knights (1415-1422)," discusses how the Polish royal chancery's efforts to make sophisticated use of written records in its dispute with the Teutonic Knights was frustrated by the loss or poor preservation of institutional archives collected prior to the fifteenth century; despite the apparently careless approach to archival preservation in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Poland, the strategies employed by the Polish lawyers to challenge the authenticity of documentation presented in evidence by their adversaries strongly indicates that the necessary critical literate mentality was in place to enable them to engage in litigation based on documentary proofs. Franz-Josef Arlinghaus' study, "Point of Reference: Trust and the Function of Written Agreements in a Late Medieval Town," explores how written documents began to attain an independent, "autonomous" status of "trustworthiness" in political discourse. Arlinghaus argues that the ability to refer to written documents as a "points of reference" (277-278), rather than citing the contents of the documents themselves, was a fundamental characteristic of the use of writing in urban politics during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The final paper in this section, Jacoba van Leeuwen's "Rebels, Texts and Triumph: the Use of Written Documents during the Revolt of 1477 in Bruges," analyzes the production, control and use of documents to "create trustworthy foundations of the future" (321-322) for political structures in crisis. As in Arlinghaus' paper, van Leeuwen's research reveals the power of written texts as symbolic objects by the later Middle Ages, but she also indicates how important the control of documents had become in bringing this political crisis to a resolution, describing how they were produced, examined, rewritten, confiscated, copied, displayed and even destroyed in public rituals.

The papers in Part Six, "Possibilities of Trust in Writing," extend consideration of the question of trust in literate practices beyond traditional geographical and conceptual boundaries that have heretofore delineated the study of pragmatic literacy. The significance and trustworthiness of writing among Scandinavians in the Early and High Middle Ages is the theme of two these papers. Terje Spurkland's "The Vikings' Trust in the Written Word" provides a succinct overview of the use and significance of writing among early Scandinavians, arguing further that contact with Latinate book culture and its use of epistolary correspondence practices during the Viking Age promoted increased their trust in and reliance upon writing both as a mode of memorialization and distanced communication. Arnved Nedkvitne's contribution, "Trusting Writing in Medieval Scandinavia," extends the discussion of these developments beyond the eleventh to the fifteenth century, describing increased reliance on written correspondence, written legal instruments, written accounts of past events and religious faith based on written texts. Apart from an increase in the production and preservation of written texts during the period, Nedkvitne concludes that the lack of evidence for the employment of critical methods of examining written texts in Medieval Scandinavia indicates that acceptance of the veracity of written communication--as in the case of oral communication--primarily remained a function of the trust placed in the person or institution issuing the message. Christina Lutter contributed the third paper in the Part Six, "Ways of Knowing and Meanings of Literacy in Twelfth-Century Admont," which examines the gendered implications of the literate practices employed by members of both the male and female monastic communities of the Austrian "double monastery" of Admont to both promote reform and reinforce continuity in their conception of vita apostolica: Lutter explores the relationship between the two communities' trust in the ideals of monastic reform and their trust in the written texts in which those ideas were expressed and preserved.

This collection concludes with essays by Dorothea Weltecke and Irene van Renswoude. Weltecke's "Trust: Some Methodological Reflections" discusses some fundamental issues related to developing a "history of trust" by exploring the etymology of medieval terms that convey the idea of "trust" as signifiers of the social structures that enabled people to come to rely upon each other, while van Renswoude's essay, "'The Word Once Sent Forth Can Never Come Back': Trust in Writing and the Dangers of Publication," addresses the issue of distrust in written communication that has persisted from Socrates' day through the Middle Ages to the advent of the Internet.

This brief abstract of this volume's contents can provide only an indication of both the broad scope and variety of methodological approaches employed by these authors to explore what constituted or signified "trustworthiness" (and/or its opposite) to medieval readers. Beyond the authors' insightful responses to the topic, these studies stand as examples of multidisciplinary scholarship at its best, and the volume overall stands as a welcome and worthy addition to the Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy series.

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Author Biography

Jonathan Herold

University of Toronto