16.10.03, Bertrand, Les écritures ordinaires

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Brigitte Bedos-Rezak

The Medieval Review 16.10.03

Bertrand, Paul. Les écritures ordinaires. Sociologie d'un temps de révolution documentaire (entre royaume de France et Empire, 1250-1350). Histoire ancienne et médiévale. Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 2015. pp. 440. ISBN: 978-2-859-44920-9 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Brigitte Bedos-Rezak
New York University

The chronological framework invoked in Les écritures ordinaires posits that the production of documents in the medieval West underwent three phases of quantitative growth, 1100-1249, 1270-1349, 1370-1470. Paul Bertrand has focused his study on the middle period, with the explicit purpose of analyzing everyday documents and documentary practices as they emerged and took root during the long thirteenth century (1200-1330) and radically transformed the relationships between the written word and medieval men and women. The archival records he has consulted, the corpus that substantiates the thesis of a documentary revolution, were produced in the frontier regions of Flanders, Hainaut, Artois, Namur, and Liège. Michael T. Clanchy, who contributed the preface to this volume, remains a strong presence throughout, having clearly exercised a profound influence upon its author.

Bertand introduces two concepts of writing, ordinary and revolutionary, which receive rich and suggestive developments in his analysis of late thirteenth-century documentary practices. A singular definition could not accommodate ordinary writing, since this phenomenon covered a multifaceted process and a product so polymorphous that it defied medieval categorization and cannot be fitted within the typology of documents traditionally offered in modern manuals of diplomatics. Transient, abundant, graphically informal and discursively simple, devoid of signs of validation, ordinary writing during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries appeared on wax tablets, on wooden tallies, exponentially multiplying on paper and parchment during the fourteenth century. Non-professional scribes usually produced such documents and, since they often wrote on hard supports such as wax tablets and wooden tallies, developed a rough, ordinary handwriting later transposed to parchment. The ordinary documents that established term leases were canceled at the leases' expiration, their making being closely linked to the concomitant appearance of an economic culture that privileged flexible revenues from real estate over the acquisition of land. Ordinary writing also generated lists, memos, financial accounts, surveys, rentals, and especially cédules, which receive sustained attention from Bertrand who scrutinized the 582 such items kept in the archives of the count of Flanders' Chambre des comptes. Cédules are notes or certificates with a dense array of text, such as bonds, quitclaims, and receipts. Though itself ephemeral, such ordinary writing has left traces because its data could be and often was entered into various cumulative registers, rolls or codices, by means of which royal, seigniorial, urban, and ecclesiastical administrators managed the estates and institutions for which they were responsible. These registers too, in being daily financial and bureaucratic tools, were ordinary writing, and even more clearly so when, small and portable, they served as personal cartularies or notebooks. Thus, the ordinary writing that sprung up and spread in the late thirteenth century undoubtedly had a practical character, and was associated with increasingly local and methodical forms of management. Low-ranking urban officials, parish priests, knights, expert and semi-professional scribes all wrote often and casually, not in designated loci (chanceries, writing bureaus) but within the mobile circumstances of their employment.

When he addresses the thirteenth-century revolution in writing, Bertrand's attention to the significant quantitative growth of writing during this period prompts him to question the nature of this change: were more documents produced or were more preserved? While wary of giving a categorical answer, Bertrand importantly points to a radical shift in the 1270s. Prior to this time, cartularies aggregated and organized the original charters that had been copied into them. Subsequently, laid out within a locus credibilis, a charter room or a treasury, most famously the French royal Trésor des chartes, charters became a primary material for archival preservation; they were no longer cartularized, and cartularies became of secondary importance. Bertrand's conclusion, that the thirteenth century was the century of the charter, a decidedly non-ordinary document, is not paradoxical. For the very change in the treatment of original charters was emblematic of a revolution, signaling a desire to gather and organize data for the purpose of institutional management and communication. Bertrand further shows that the radical departure he assigns to the late thirteenth century involved new attitudes toward and expectations of writing, and therefore affected both newer forms of written production, and extant and traditionally produced written artifacts. Formal charters, diplomas, and bulls became living documents as they were variously updated, receiving transfixes or face-lifts via inspeximus and vidimus. Solemn, memorial cartularies that had compiled acts of donation morphed into instruments of registry that also recorded outgoing documents. Obituaries shifted from emphasizing necrology to stressing economic considerations; the income funding commemoration of the dead came to take precedence over liturgical commemoration.

The treatment of charters signals yet another aspect of the revolution, and we encounter here the most innovative dimension of Bertand's argument. For if the revolution appropriated older documents and traditional formats, it also involved a great deal of invention, driven in part by such new institutions as towns, mendicant orders, and the bureaucracies of courts, accounting departments, chanceries, and councils. Such institutional needs generated a plethora of writing and documentary forms, even as it raised the twin expectation of information and of its availability. In these circumstances, it was less the single ordinary piece of writing (charters, notes, certificates, receipts, memos) than their integration within a web of other documents that produced their relevance. Thus charters were gathered in treasuries, while the mass of ordinary written chits was copied into registers, cartularies, rentals, surveys, or accounts. Bertrand implicitly suggests that the revolution in writing bore primarily on the procedures of copying, tallying, and transcribing. It was in late thirteenth-century compilations that earlier twelfth-century experiments with textual contractions (summaries, precis) and with abbreviations were actualized and became entrenched. Similarly, page layouts, graphic signs of abbreviation and indexing, mnemotechnic chromatic markers, designed initial letters, modes of classification (chronological, topographical, typological: nature of dues) were appropriated and expanded to facilitate the utilization of the many sorts of registers that were newly produced in the thirteenth century. Significantly, these registers were more often than not devoid of independent indices and tables of content. Bertrand speculates convincingly that their textual format and organization, coupled with the fact that they were based on notes, memos and other routine writing, already gave them the character of tables and inventories. The single ordinary document thus, functioned by reference to other documents, along a referential axis provided by its insertion within registers and cartularies. This documentary network permitted the manipulation of data that, already available in earlier and other formats, could be re-deployed in newer documents arrayed for different purposes. Thus, in Artois, information from annual accounts was used to compose a book of dues for an entire baillage; the baillage's accounts in turn were submitted to the general receiver of the county of Artois, who compiled general accounts from them. The ordinary document, created to connect with others, bore no signs of validation. Rather, it drew validity and authoritative weight from its origin within a particular graphic community. Here, Bertrand fruitfully borrows and commingles Brian Stock's concept of textual community and Roger Chartier's notion of graphic culture. Graphic communities were defined by shared writing tools and graphic attributes devised to facilitate administration and foster communication. Thierry d'Hireçon, the rich and powerful provost of Countess Mahaut d'Artois (d. 1329) who died bishop of Arras in 1328, provides Bertrand with a well-documented career, allowing him to infer that heads of graphic communities were high ranking administrators, typically clerics, expert in writing and specialists of law or accounting, who imparted their methodology to their staff of mostly anonymous and clerical scribes. In graphic communities therefore, scribal and formulaic patterns tended toward uniformity though not, Bertrand insists, standardization. The new styles of documentary hands, derived from cursively written Gothic script, were clear and rapid, easy to write and read, and facilitated the handling of extensive documentation. Bertrand, however, denies the separate existence of a specific cursive script, arguing instead for "cursivity," mechanical and continuous movements of the hand that accelerates writing by not pausing between letters. Cursivity was increasingly and idiosyncratically used in the 1290s by scribes facing the particular needs of their institutions. Crucially, therefore, in Bertrand's analysis, writing skills and literate administrative methods both molded and identified the graphic communities that fostered institutional writing, and it was their institutional origin in princely and ecclesiastical courts and administrations, and lordly and urban bureaucracies that further endowed ordinary writing with validity. This particular conclusion brings us back to the new archiving of charters in the thirteenth century. Bertrand explains this treatment of non-ordinary documents by positing that the efficacy of thirteenth-century charters depended upon and attested to the authority of their authors. Although charters were sealed, the function of the seals was less for documentary authentication than for the identification of the charters' authors, in whom Bertrand, loosely following a Weberian sociology, sees institutions. Thus he considers that both charters and ordinary writing participated in a revolution of writing, which ultimately permitted institutions to actualize their rulership through documentary materialization.

Had Bertrand firmly confined his study to its declared spatio-temporal framework, his important demonstration that the thirteenth-century revolutions in writing and in routine documentary practices were mutually constitutive would have emerged clearly enough, supported by 81 illustrations of the ordinary documents analyzed throughout the volume. Bertrand, however, seems to have operated under a strong imperative to provide chronological, social, and historiographical contextualization. This legitimate desire presumably follows from an awareness that many of the transformations he describes, compilation, page layout, legibility, and methods of storing and retrieving information were already part of twelfth-century writing practices. He therefore stresses the specificity of documentary practices in the long thirteenth century by comparing them to their antecedents. Such a comparison has had two less fortunate consequences. It has led him to a rather simplified reification of twelfth-century literate and documentary cultures. It has also led to a lengthy and somewhat repetitive synthesis of European scholarship on literacies, manuscripts, documentary practices, and script from antiquity to the Middle Ages, and from Spain to Ethiopia. Despite such extensive and occasionally even confusing coverage there remain significant aspects of current scholarship that have been seemingly overlooked. Mary Carruthers's extensive work on memory, for example, is not part of Bertand's discussions of memory, mnenomics, and writing. Claude Jeay's in-depth tracking of the appearance of signatures in administrative contexts and on routine documents, Anne-Marie Christin's reflections on writing, and studies of the semiotic dimension of identity and documentary authorization would certainly have enriched this important book. Still, while its reach for comprehensiveness gives Ecritures ordinaires a slightly hybrid quality, blending text book and essay, its dense content and original insights richly rewards the intensity required of its readers.

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