Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters collects thirteen essays originally presented at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds between 2005 and 2011 on early medieval "charter studies." This somewhat uncommon translation of Urkundenforschung is perhaps a more useful and broader term for what the authors and many of their colleagues do than the usual "diplomatic(s)," although in the United States it simply replaces the need to explain to non-medievalist colleagues that one is not working on international relations with the need to explain that one is not working on public school funding (Google it!). By whatever name, its early medieval version is a particularly vital field at the moment, notably in the Anglophone world: as the editors acknowledge in their preface, their work is "part of a trend, rather than starting one" (ix). If one imagines "charter studies" as existing on a spectrum, with the old-school tasks of the discrimen veri ac falsi on one end and the mining of documents for data in the service political or social history on the other, most of the essays in this volume eschew the margins for the more complex middle, asking second order questions about documentary practices and contextual interpretation of charter evidence. Jonathan Jarrett's useful introduction suggests that an original focus on new questions in diplomatics per se (authorship, production, preservation, and use of charters) was abandoned to make room "work which develops their wider implications" (9). This exacerbates somewhat the frequent lack of internal coherence in edited volumes of this sort. The introduction identifies some common themes (variation from norms; law in practice; range, scale, and regionality). Readers will identify many others, recombining individual essays in productive groupings--Anglo-Saxon England, diplomatic formulas, political culture, land tenure, lay versus ecclesiastical practice, kingship, database studies, and so forth. In the end, however, it is simply a collection of interesting essays--some clearly only lightly revised conference papers, others substantially developed--about, or drawing on evidence from, early medieval documents. The volume remains highly resistant to a synthetic evaluation; the TMR audience will forgive, I trust, the summary approach and consequent length of this review.
Martin J. Ryan ("'Charters in Plenty, If Only They Were Good for Anything': The Problem of Bookland and Folkland in Pre-Viking England") reviews the scholarship on the bookland/folkland distinction before adducing some charter evidence to support his contention that the difficulty scholars have in defining those terms is likely a good reflection of historical practices. The rights and obligations recorded on parchment "operated as part of a wider system--written and unwritten--of practices and norms" (29); furthermore, these practices and norms changed over time and from place to place. An attempt to flatten the evidence into a single schema grounded in the charter evidence is bound to fail.
Allan Scott McKinley ("Strategies of Alienating Land to the Church in Eighth-Century Alsace") draws on the documents of the monastery of Wissembourg to explore, and thereby to highlight the importance of exploring, the specific historical context of individual grants of land. Why did this particular donor grant this particular amount of land to this particular institution? In one group of donations, he identifies a practice of one-time post-mortem donations pro anima, driven by memorial and salvific concerns. In another, it is instead an attempt to perform power and status across a region. In a third, it is a response to political instability by solidifying ties with a church. As he puts it nicely, "it is a mistake to think that the relative uniformity of charters reflects a uniformity of strategies" (52).
Erik Niblaeus ("Cistercian Charters and the Import of a Political Culture into Medieval Sweden") reads the eighteen surviving twelfth-century diplomas issued in Sweden, fifteen of which were in favor of Cistercian houses, to complicate narratives of cultural diffusion and the history of power Scandinavian lands. The charter material is "difficult to connect to a formal, institutional government, [and] dominated by the concerns of cloistered foreigners on the defensive against disruptive locals" (67). It does not support, he argues, a misguided attempt to construct simple and coherent narratives out of highly fragmentary evidence.
Charles West ("Meaning and Context: Moringus the Lay Scribe and Charter Formulation in Late Carolingian Burgundy"), in perhaps the most stimulating piece in the collection, uses a case study centered on the six charters inscribed by a self-identified laicus, all concerning a single village (Aiserey), to address the so-called mutation documentaire, the post-Carolingian transformation of formulaic charter writing. Echoing the arguments of both Ryan and McKinley earlier in the volume, he describes charters as "skilful translations of irreducibly specific circumstances into a schematic and universalized form of narrative" (81) that were crucial to effective conveyancing. He presents Moringus as an expert in this task, and the choice of some landowners to use his services as evidence that in this village charter-writing was not an archaic and alien ecclesiastical practice. He argues furthermore that the disappearance of figures such as Moringus and their particular practices of textual representation must reflect a change in what was represented: documentary change reveals historical change.
Jonathan Jarrett ("Comparing the Earliest Documentary Culture in Carolingian Catalonia") takes as his source base the roughly 340 ninth-century documents surviving from his region and subjects them to skilful formulaic analysis. His aim is to understand the nature of the Carolingian takeover of the administration of Northeastern Iberia by exploring possible models for the region's specific documentary language. After sensibly rejecting evidence from the late-tenth-century Ripoll formulary, and then showing that contemporary Frankish and earlier Visigothic practices similarly fail to explain local scribal habits, he engages in a detailed comparison of the Catalonian material with the roughly 128 documents from ninth-century Northern Iberia, again finding difference. He proposes (and for what it is worth, I think he is probably correct) that such coherence as there is in the regional charter language is not due to outside influence, but rather to the local episcopate as a source of training. Returning to his motivating question, he concludes that if the Carolingian takeover "is to be framed as a conquest it must be considered a remarkably permissive one" (117).
Arkady Hodge ("When is a Charter Not a Charter? Documents in Non-Conventional Contexts in Early Medieval Europe") offers a creative comparison between far-flung unconventional records of property transactions. A notice in the Freising Traditionsbuch and an abbreviated record inscribed in the Book of Armagh (a manuscript of the New Testament) both reflect the habit of writing charters in books. The gesta municipalia provide an analogue, supporting a hypothesis that "single sheets and 'non-charters' copied into books are compl[e]mentary...both represent patterns of source survival where one half of the original documentary record has disappeared" (137). Vernacular grants recorded in liturgical books from Deer (Scotland) and Canterbury, finally, are likely not archival copies along the lines of the earlier texts discussed, but nevertheless can be recontextualized as within the diplomatic mainstream--a set of documentary practices that this essay argues must be expanded.
Antonio Sennis ("Destroying Documents in the Early Middle Ages") argues that the destruction of documents was not necessarily a fraudulent attempt to manipulate reality. We should instead consider the wide range of motivations and contexts for the practice. Destruction of documents could be an insult to an institution or an act of munificence (as in the case of Fredegund and Chilperic burning tax registers). It could be ordered by a legal proceeding, and not only of documents deemed forged. It could take place in the context of internal institutional disputes, or as part of institutional strategies of supremacy. But documents could also be destroyed for simple material means: the need to recycle old parchment. And in many cases, destruction was not hidden, but performed. In the end, Sennis argues, the destruction of documents must be seen as yet another documentary practice: a way medieval people used documents.
Charles Insley ("Looking for Charters That Aren't There: Lost Anglo-Saxon Charters and Archival Footprints") turns to mid-eleventh-century documents from Exeter Cathedral to examine problems surrounding documentary preservation. He argues that the "Æthelstan forgeries," universally condemned as inept efforts, are instead elements of a broader program of the creation of a usable history for the cathedral. A more accomplished forgery (S 433/3) preserves, he argues, the traces of a genuine lost tenth-century text. Lost documents can also be hypothesized from dorsal notations and interpolated clauses. And a set of copies of charters that belonged to other institutions may hint at an attempt at exercising power through administration. The essay shows how we can imaginatively move from the present archive to its historical antecedent.
Shigeto Kikuchi ("Representations of Monarchical 'Highness' in Carolingian Royal Charters") suggests specific political contexts behind the shifting honorific epithets found in ninth-century diplomas. Documents of Louis the German, for example, only adopt nostra serenitas and serenissimus after the death of Louis the Pious in 840 and point to a claim against the former's older brother, the Emperor Lothar. In Louis the Pious's reign, majestas becomes common only from 834, a fact the author ties to the emperor's deposition and rehabilitation: the crime of lèse-majesté. The preference of the chancery of Charles the Bald for sublimitas from 848 is explained by his enthronement in that year. These epithets, then, "were not banal ornaments...their usage may well have been carefully calculated" (202).
Morn Capper ("Title and Troubles: Conceptions of Mercian Royal Authority in Eighth- and Ninth-Century Charters") also examines royal epithets, tracing variations from the dominant rex Merciorum style. In the diocese of Worcester, there were regular references to Æthelbald's rule over the South Angles, an index of the region's grappling with new overlordship. Similarly, Canterbury charters refer to Ceolwulf I and Coenwulf as also kings of the people of Kent. And following submission to Alfred of Wessex, Æthelred's styles varied considerably, here presented as evidence of uncertainty about his royal status. As the author writes, "Variation between regions in the styles of Mercian kings and other signatories probably reflects the impact of changes in Mercian rule at a local level, rather than a template provided by Mercian kings" (223)--an interesting externalist twist on the usual reading of royal intitulature as evidence of a king's own political program.
Elina Screen ("Lothar I in Italy, 834–40: Charters and Authority") examines two dozen diplomata from an otherwise poorly attested time and place to reconstruct Lothar's exile after his rebellion against Louis the Pious. She argues from the patterns of survival as well as dating clauses for restrictions on and hesitation surrounding his rule. Tracing those who received charters allows her to describe Lothar's development of patronage networks; the timing and language of a single grant to Nonantola reveals the effect of the death of several of his key supporters; later charters reveal the reshaping of his entourage. The most interesting aspect of the essay is the way the author reads the temporal gaps between the issuing of charters as reflecting, for example, reluctance on the part of locals to flock to Lothar, or uncertainty during negotiations with Louis.
Alaric Trousdale ("The Charter Evidence for the Reign of King Edmund [939–946]") attempts to elucidate the internal politics of a similarly opaque period of Anglo-Saxon history through the study of witness lists on royal charters, a task dismissed by earlier scholars as impossible. He takes the traditional approach of reading changes in political fortunes of individuals and factions in patterns of appearance and precedence. He makes special note of changes from the previous reign of Æthelstan, arguing for a restructuring of royal power, and posits a significant break in 943, when many powerful figures disappear from the lists and are replaced by new men. The hesitancy of his claims hints at the difficulty of the task that led to the pessimism of earlier students of the problem, but he offers several perfectly plausible interpretations.
Julie A. Hofmann ("Changes in Patronage at Fulda: A Re-Evaluation") draws on a database of 611 charters edited in the Codex diplomaticus Fuldensis, covering the period from the foundation of the monastery in 744 through the reign of Louis the German (d. 876), to ask questions about women's participation in land transfers, but finds few answers. In examining the presence and decline over time of women in witness lists, the author is able to explain oddities in her data, but concludes that "the roles [women] actually played in the transactions...are more difficult to define and interpret" (283). She sensibly turns to male participation in the transactions to provide a baseline for comparison, but this proves difficult to separate out from general trends. The essay is self-conscious about method and ultimately pessimistic: while the database approach can suggest trends and present new puzzles to be explained, "the real interpretive work must still be done by reading the charters themselves carefully" (298).
This statement proves a fitting coda to the volume as a whole. While others scholars of "charter studies" are pushing the frontiers of "digital diplomatics" beyond simple database studies , the essays in this volume show that the time-honored practice of reading charters carefully--which, many of the essays suggest, means with particular attention to a range of contextual information--continues to add to our understanding not only of early medieval documentary practices, but of early medieval history generally.
1. E.g., Georg Vogeler, ed., Digitale Diplomatik: neue Technologien in der historischen Arbeit mit Urkunden (Archiv für Diplomatik, Beiheft 12; Cologne: Böhlau, 2009), or Antonella Ambrosio, Sébastien Barret, and Georg Vogeler, eds., Digital Diplomatics: The Computer As a Tool for the Diplomatist? (Archiv für Diplomatik, Beiheft 14; Cologne: Böhlau, 2014).