Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
16.11.12, Groß, Visualisierte Gegenseitigkeit

16.11.12, Groß, Visualisierte Gegenseitigkeit

Lotharingia--the one-time Carolingian kingdom which spanned the Low Countries and western Rhineland down to the Jura Mountains--has provided fertile ground for medievalists in recent years, in large part thanks to a surge of engagement with the history of late Carolingian and Ottonian Europe. Katharina Anna Groß's study of social relations and documentary practice in this region in the tenth and eleventh centuries is a welcome contribution to this literature. The book considers two important but relatively little-studied aspects of property transfer and diplomatic form: the precaria, a fixed-term grant of usufruct made to a petitioner, often in return for rent or service, and the chirograph (carta partita, carta divisa; German Teilurkunde), a charter written in two (or sometimes three) segments on a single sheet of parchment, with each part detailing the rights and obligations of one of the parties involved. Words or symbols were written between the constituent parts of the document, which was then cut through this code, so that the two sides of the transaction could later be authenticated by being placed side-by-side. Groß's objective is to identify and describe the "encounter" (Begegnung) between the precaria and the chirograph. Whereas precariae had been widespread in Francia since the eighth century, the earliest appearance of the chirograph on the continent comes in Lotharingia in 928, and the author asks whether the latter's adoption was simply an administrative innovation or rather a reflection of deeper social change and novel uses of precariae.

The study is situated within a number of historiographical currents, including the growth of literacy and written administration, the expansion of episcopal autonomy, monastic reform, and anthropologically-oriented studies of gift exchange. Groß seeks to challenge traditional diplomatic narratives which view Lotharingian chirographs as a kind of stopgap along the route from formulaic Carolingian charters to the widespread adoption of sealed private charters in the twelfth century. The author argues that these documents should be considered on their own terms as innovations and experiments undertaken in response to particular social and political conditions. The chirograph, moreover, was especially suited to conveying the mutual obligations and long-term relations inherent to precarial agreements: the "visualized reciprocity" of the book's title. The first two chapters outline the methodology, previous historiographical approaches to these themes, and the source base of the enquiry. The study focuses on 30 chirographs and 183 precarial transactions (described in full in appendices B and C). Chapter 3 examines the personnel involved in charter production in the bishoprics and monasteries under consideration. By scrutinizing links between Lotharingian bishops and reformers, Groß proposes that the spread of the chirograph form owed much to episcopal initiative (particularly in the dioceses of Trier and Toul), and that its adoption in monastic scriptoria was driven by reformers who had previously served as episcopal notaries.

The next two chapters are each over ninety pages long and constitute the bulk of the study. Chapter 4 analyses the development of precariae and other loan agreements across the period under investigation. After outlining a typology of precariae, the author explores who pursued precarial arrangements and assesses the economic and social benefits of particular types for both lenders and borrowers. In the tenth century, precariae were concluded mainly by comital and noble families, whereas after the millennium, emerging lower-level social groups such as milites, ministeriales, and eventually even peasants began to obtain them. Additionally, there is a gradual shift in diplomatic form away from the "double-charter" of the Carolingian period (i.e., a document recording a donation, request for usufruct, and award of usufruct which was then simply duplicated) to the chirograph (which recorded the different obligations in separate parts). The period is shown to be one of declining use of precariae: whereas in the tenth century such contracts were concluded in order to establish and maintain personal and economic ties within largely pre-existing social networks, the "binding" value of precarial gifts gave way to more purely economic concerns. There is thus a marked shift towards more straightforward loan forms and attempts to integrate new social groups. Groß situates these changes in the contexts of growing royal power (which lessened the need for elite landowners to pursue such relationships with monasteries) and efforts to exclude the laity from involvement in ecclesiastical affairs by eleventh-century reformers.

Chapter 5 is a detailed examination of the origins, development, and functions of the chirograph. Although the form may have its origins in Ireland, the earliest chirographs are found in England. Despite identifying some convincing contexts for "culture transfer" between England and the continent in the early tenth century (notably the figure of Cenwald, bishop of Worcester, where the earliest secure examples of the chirograph are attested), the author is reluctant to suppose an Insular origin, leaving open the possibility that the chirograph emerged independently in Lotharingia. The mobility of bishops and reformers is further argued to have been a key factor in the spread of the chirograph in the tenth century. In examining issuers and recipients of these documents, Groß argues that the visualization of a transaction in a chirograph would have helped illiterates and semi-literates grasp its signification, particularly in cases of individuals from lower social levels who began to receive them after the year 1000. She then turns to the physical features of the documents themselves, surveying how the parchments were cut as well as the various words and symbols written across the partition (e.g., the name of the bishop, a set of monograms, the alphabet, and, from the mid-eleventh century, the word cyrografus). Here the book's forty-five plates (mostly in color) are an exquisite aid. The author next explores what kinds of transactions were written as chirographs, showing that these were usually agreements entailing mutual obligations, rights, or responsibilities; among surviving examples one finds precariae and other loan contracts, records of dispute resolution, donations, purchases and sales, wills, and more. The chapter concludes by sketching four key functions of the chirograph: a mechanism of documentary authentication, a "didactic-administrative" role to render charters more widely intelligible, a "symbolic-social" function to signify the two-sidedness of a transaction, and a medium to express power relationships between bishops and landowners.

The last four chapters form a short synthesis entitled the "History of an Encounter" (Geschichte einer Begegnung), in which the author draws on four points of contact between precariae and chirographs in order to contextualize the preceding analysis in more of a narrative framework. These snapshots reiterate the political, economic, and social transformations Groß sees behind changes in leasing arrangements and diplomatic form. The case studies thus in turn illuminate the introduction of the chirograph as a source of surety and a device for strengthening relations between institutions and landowners in the tenth century; changes in form and content of precariae and their extension to milites and other followers around the year 1000; a mid-eleventh-century shift towards the concluding of lease agreements and other contracts of mutual obligation with individuals firmly outside monastic and episcopal networks; and finally the variety of rent-based chirographed agreements produced in the early twelfth century. A short conclusion re-emphasizes the use of precariae and chirographs as responses to social and political developments and as visual and performative representations of participation, inclusion, unity, and consensus. In addition to the abovementioned appendices, Groß includes editions and translations of two unpublished eleventh-century chirographs.

Overall, there is much to commend in this insightful and timely study, which engages substantially with notions of pragmatic literacy, gift exchange, and symbolic communication, as well as with more traditional diplomatics. The book represents a major contribution to the study of Lotharingia as an Urkundenterritorium and of documentary practices in the tenth and eleventh centuries. It will be of great interest to individuals studying social relations, property transfers, and the performative aspects of charters. Readers will doubtless wish to compare Groß's wider arguments with those of Charles West, whose Reframing the Feudal Revolution (Cambridge, 2013) covers much the same area and themes, albeit from a very different angle. One downside to the present study, however, is that the author sometimes runs the risk of overgeneralizing from the evidence: as she makes clear, most precariae were not issued as chirographs, and most chirographs record transactions other than precariae. Concentrating heavily on the "encounter" between the two thus yields a rather narrow corpus: of the thirty chirographs treated here, only eleven are precarial leases (232). This inevitably tempers some of Groß's conclusions, and more perhaps ought to have been said about the great number of leases which do not seem to have been issued as chirographs (although the author reasonably surmises that many precariae extant only in cartularies may well have originally been chirographs). Nevertheless, Groß on the whole takes a broad view of the subject and offers convincing interpretations of the growth of chirograph-use and the evolution of lease and rent contracts. She succeeds in demonstrating a clear link between changing documentary practices and social transformation. She is to be thanked for producing an intriguing diplomatic study of Lotharingian charters between the end of the Carolingian Empire and the Investiture Contest, and for bringing several lesser-known features of these documents to the attention of a wider audience.