12.06.21, Härtel, Notarielle und kirchliche Urkunden im frühen und hohen Mittelalter

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Jonathan Jarrett

The Medieval Review 12.06.21

Härtel, Reinhard. Notarielle und kirchliche Urkunden im frühen und hohen Mittelalter. Historische Hilfswissenschaften. Vienna and Munich: Böhlau Verlag and Oldenbourg Verlag, 2011. Pp. 507. ISBN: 978-3-205-78618-4.

Reviewed by:
Jonathan Jarrett
Oxford University

This solid softback presents itself to the reader as a member of a familiar class that exists only in non-English scholarship, the introduction to diplomatic--or, for strangers to the term, the field of study of documents of practice, charters, notices and so forth. One might argue that this is an over-populated field, as France, Italy, Germany and Spain have all produced new manuals of this sort in the last twenty years, only the French example of which (by Guyotjeannin, Pyck and Tock) seems really to have had any success in replacing the older generation of such works, especially those by Giry and Bresslau, from scholars' reference shelves. The potential reader of this book therefore needs to be told whether there is really a need for it, a responsibility which this reviewer will awkwardly shirk until the closing paragraphs, when he has more fully described what the book actually does.

Härtel breaks his book up into two huge chapters, the historische Teil and the praktischer Teil, bracketed with a short and technical introduction and a welcome fifty-page selection of examples with illustrations, texts and detailed commentary. All these sections are only sparingly footnoted but provided with extremely useful marginal Stichwörter that make navigating the text rapid and easy. There follows a huge bibliography and a similarly detailed index. In the introduction, Härtel makes his aim clear:

"Der Verfasser hat versucht, in den verfügbaren Druckseiten das Wesentliche so unzubringen, dass die Bedingungen einer elementaren Einführung, eines das lateinische Europa erfassenden entwicklungsgeschichtlichen überblicks, von Hinweisen für die praktische Arbeit und nicht zuletzt einer ausgewogenen Beispielsammlung allgesamt in möglichst angemessener weise erfüllt sind" (10).

It is fair to say that he has achieved this aim, and the most impressive thing about this is the sheer breadth of coverage. While the writing of diplomatic manuals is as implied above something of a national sport, Härtel covers, in differing depth but with consistent interest in his material, everywhere from Ireland to Istria and Portugal to Poland. One thus finds a tight and sceptical discussion of the so-called 'Celtic charter' (188-90) within pages of a discussion of royalty's availability in Hungary to authenticate private transactions with a seal (204-5). This can only be good for bringing out what is unique and what is shared between so many areas, and in this respect Härtel deserves praise for having accomplished something more or less unique, which required a massive range of reading in many languages, effort that sounding the bibliography makes very clear.

He proceeds, moreover, with a very consistent framework that makes such cross-evaluation easier still. The Latin document of transaction is essentially a Roman tool, as he sets out in the early part of the historische Teil, but not only did it cease to be employed in Roman ways as the Western Empire dwindled, but it was then exported, in its various states and forms, to areas which had never known Roman organisation but which made the documents their own. Despite the reviving and unifying force of Roman law from the twelfth century onwards and the general but poorly understood phenomenon we tend to call Europeanisation (here blamed largely on Cistercians and the papacy), it is still somewhat remarkable that almost all of the areas that Härtel covers wound up looking more or less diplomatically alike, with notaries whose qualifications permitted them to authenticate documents that had once needed witnesses, or with seals that testified to the genuine involvement and expression of the issuer, or a mixture of both, but in either case systems of authentication by individuals who claimed a public credibility. (Ireland, Croatia and much of Scandinavia obstinately refused to play along with this schema.)

The fact that this is obviously a state that Härtel finds natural and proper--it being that which is usual for the late medieval transalpine documents on which his other work has focussed--does, however, raise some issues about teleology for this reviewer (who, it should equally be admitted, is much more interested in the more chaotic period beforehand, in which groups and communities had to be managed into a consensus about the validity of any document). It is disturbing by now to find a block 'Germanic' cultural archetype being used to explain such deviations from Roman models (57); for Härtel, while 'barbarians' deserves snigger quotes (61), 'Germanic' culture in the early Middle Ages needs no questioning. The fact that this diplomatic unity emerged, with a definite if blurred division between seals and chirographs in the north of Europe and notaries and registers in the south, as Härtel usefully describes, takes more accounting for than he gives here. The differences he notes with due care thus also lose some of their significance, especially when we find the author suggesting that those areas that conform less well to his diplomatic dialectic had to do things differently simply because of not yet having adopted chanceries, seals and notarial offices (154)! The diplomatic history (in the relevant sense) of most areas of Europe is thus depicted as a more or less well-realised return to Italian practice, when in fact it seems clear from what Härtel presents that where there were fewer towns, where people met in large numbers less frequently or where documents simply were not used for the same things as in Italy (and this is most of Europe) they looked and were authenticated differently. This should not be assumed to be the natural end-point of European diplomatic development, and for this reviewer the message that France and Germany were diplomatically more like each other than either was to Italy, despite the supposedly normative role of Roman practice and Roman law from Italy in driving that similarity, could be the seed of useful later investigations by someone more interested in doing genuine comparative history about the use of documents. A historian or a diplomatist who took on such a comparative endeavour might also escape Härtel's unjustified scorn for historians doing such work on literacy and writing without paying attention to the work on these matters by diplomatists (293, 294).

It could be argued, and justly, that these issues are not what the book was for, and certainly they are hardly 'elementare' and only questionably diplomatic. Härtel's diplomatic, indeed, has a respectable pedigree in the German Rechtschule; it is noticeable that he draws the history of modern writing on the subject in Germany back beyond Bresslau to Brunner. It is also detectable in the terminological breakdown of the charter provided in the introduction, invoking all the terms like eschatocol, sanctio, arenga and so forth that one would expect in such a manual, and indeed explaining them briskly and usefully with some space for their variation. It is also plain, however, that Härtel is very much alive to oddity and difference in his documents, which makes his adherence to the traditional categories he has inherited from his training a source of problems for him. Sometimes the breadth of his reading gives him a way around such issues: thus, although there is an inevitable thrashing around the subject of chanceries in various places, he distinguishes himself, in a field where international conferences include studies on France or studies on Germany but almost never both, by citing literature from both schools and observing their differences neutrally. On the other hand he remains trapped by the perennially malleable difference the German scholarship insists on making between charters and notitiae, something that falls down in peripheral areas such as the "keltische Gebiet", where the charter form proposed by Davies has many of the characteristics of a notitia, and blurs in the many areas where notitiae were sealed and used as dispositive documents despite their theory being quite other (as the traditional school here reported has it). This suggests over and over again that the categories have more significance to us than they did to their users. Dealing with the variation in bishops' documents, Härtel admits, "Das mag im Rückblick als Zeichen von Tiefstand und Chaos gewertet werden.... Die Zeitgenossen müssen das nicht so gesehen haben" (132-3). One may ask whether, since they wrote and used the documents, the contemporaries' view should not be privileged over an evidently problematic schematisation.

This contradiction is a frequent occurrence in this book, and in this aspect considerably deepened by Härtel's otherwise admirable preference for definitional edge cases and 'development stages' in the Beispiele section; there are in fact fewer documents there that rigorously match the standard criteria for charters or notitiae than that flout them. After observing this the reader might be forgiven for wondering if the author was unable to find examples that actually made his case! We may observe it also with the differentiation made between signatures and lists of witnesses, where almost nothing that is said in sections 3.2.4 about the one and 3.2.8 about the other could not be swapped to apply to its partner, and also with the decision not to take on board the forty-year-old attack on the term 'original', lately renewed by Duranti. Here Härtel is fully aware that he is anachronistic, observing:

"Es wird kaum Zufall sein, dass uns Heutigen die Unterscheidung von Original und Abschrift gerade dort am schwersten fehlt, wo eben dieser Unterschied für die mittelalterlichen Zeitgenossesn eine geringere Rolle gespielt haben kann" (220-1).

This seems like a good enough reason to drop this Unterscheidung to this once-Anglo-Saxonist (Härtel admits that the category runs into the most trouble in Anglo-Saxon England, but I continue to recognise the issues in Catalonia), but instead we are told, "Trotz alledem gibt es gute Gründe, am Original-Begriff festzuhalten, wenn auch im Bewusstsein seiner Grenzen" (221), to which it can only be said that this reviewer's opinion differs.

These are all peculiarities or annoyances but none of them hinder the book in achieving its essential aim of bringing diplomatic scholarship to a novice audience and enabling their research. Indeed, especially because of its structuring for ready reference with the detailed index and marginal keywords, to which the heavily-articulated structure adds further value: in terms of finding out the state of the art as the author sees it this book is admirably easy to use. Less so, sadly, with finding out others' views, as the bibliography is an inexplicable mare's nest. It is divided into subsections that follow, though do not match, the substructure of the book, and each item cited is numbered, but these intents of ready reference are not followed through because the item numbers are never referred to anywhere else, and because items are not repeated from subsection to subsection. Works are also very rarely referred to by anything other than author in the body text, making citations of prolific authors impossible to identify. Thus, to pick one example of several, the author 'Wild' cited in section 2.2.2 (112, 116) is actually listed under the bibliography for sections 2.1.3 & 2.1.4 (411) and there is no way to be sure that it was this article the author meant; was it instead one of the two listed for 2.2.3 (418-9)? These issues make the bibliography impossible to do more with than simply to read in toto and compile one's own, a great shame given the work behind it and very hard to understand.

It seems to this reviewer, in fact, that the best way to use this book is not, in fact, to consume it in order, but to read the introduction first, taking note of the technical distinctions there set out and also the conditions with which they are expressed, and then to plunge straight into the examples, with their excellent-quality reproductions, so as to see these categories and conditions in action. So armed, the reader can then continue into the book with a much clearer idea of what the author actually means, made the more necessary by the fact that the Beispiele are not referred to in the body text. Which chapter readers then dive into should probably depend on their knowledge of charters: if they are used to diplomatic sources, then they should read the historische Teil as it will certainly show them alternative diplomatics that leave them clearer about what is odd and what is standard about the documents with which they are familiar. Readers new to such materials, however, should start with the praktischer Teil, which despite its oddities does an excellent job of explaining the many different ways in which diplomatic evidence can be exploited and where the debates on such matters stand (except in the digital sphere, where the author perhaps wisely decides not to risk being out-of-date within a very short time). In general and overall this discussion is thorough, accessible, sharp, and current.

It is harder, however, to envisage a reader who will need both sections, hence this reviewer's initial reluctance to judge whether or not the scholarly world needs this new manual. In fact, it is difficult to say whether this is a manual at all. As a discursive work it ultimately fails, as it ignores the interesting loose threads of disunity that could be used to write a history of how documents were actually used across Europe. It is certainly not a single handbook, however, although it may be two: in either case it is hard to imagine a reader in need of such a book who would not also want royal documents (these are being covered by another volume in the same series, so Härtel can hardly be blamed for this decision). Nonetheless, the big questions that diplomatic sources raise are unanswered here. This volume may serve instead as a hugely wide-ranging point of entry to the field, which is after all its stated aim and one that it achieves. The question is whether one will want to look at it twice or merely use it as a springboard to one's own interests. In this respect, the reviewer's judgement can only be subjective.

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Jonathan Jarrett

Oxford University