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22.06.23 Erhart (ed.), Life in the Early Middle Ages in 36 Chapters

22.06.23 Erhart (ed.), Life in the Early Middle Ages in 36 Chapters

Is it possible to produce a captivating and illuminating history of the early medieval world, based largely on the trove of charters preserved by the Stiftsarchiv St. Gallen? Clearly, it is. This book began as a German companion-piece to an exhibition at St. Gall titled “Das Wunder der Überlieferung - Der St.Galler Klosterplan und Europa im frühen Mittelalter,” which opened in May 2020. The translated version is indeed full of wonders and unexpected surprises. There are of course 36 brief chapters, penned by eight contributors (including Erhart), each illustrated with a full-spread colour reproduction of a relevant St. Gall charter. Progressing through them, one learns not only how documents were produced and organised at the monastery, and about the various land transactions they recorded, but also of how they elucidate subjects as diverse as childhood, marriage, old age, and death, or the contents and functioning of a farm, or what people wore, ate, and drank. Throughout I was delighted to learn fascinating tidbits that I will repeat to my students: for example, that wooden pipes and aqueducts supplied water in the St. Gall region and even afforded running water in the monastery (141); that St. Gall monks preferred white wine to red (149); that witnesses in court cases were tugged on the ear to help them remember (59); or that chwiltiwerch constituted the nightwork done inside by lamplight on long winter evenings (127).

More than anything, however, the book makes clear the key social role of the monastery, and monasteries in general, during the early Middle Ages. They were, to use a well-worn expression, “powerhouses of prayer” (13), but the documents evince a myriad of other functions. The monastery was a powerful institution with diverse holdings, “like a large company that saw significant profits” (123). It was in a position to protect its interests. By intertwining their interests with those of the monastery, individuals and families could therefore bring themselves under its protective umbrella (51). To do this, land could be given to the abbey in the form of a precarial grant, which would legally cede the property to the monastery, but with the provision that the donor and his heirs could lease it for as long as the family line continued. This meant that the monastery was essentially entrusted with ensuring that familial property succession followed the donor’s wishes (71, 111). Pilgrims leaving for afar could similarly entrust their property into the safe hands of St. Gall, with the proviso that they might buy it back for a nominal sum upon their (uncertain) return (79). Furthermore, simply by preserving written transactions and agreements between itself and others, or between others, the monastery also headed off potential later disputes about property (51, 67), while the monastery took an interest in resolving (with written record) those issues that did arise in its territories (55).

The monastery kept the wishes of donors alive, but it also literally kept the donors alive in their old age (63, 115). Again and again, we see provisions like those demanded by Cozpert, who in May 816 (ChSG 223) donated multiple properties. In exchange, he retained the option to live out his life as a guest of the monastery, with “a heated chamber and twice the rations of a monk…and a wool blanket every other year” (118). The monastery acted as a kind of retirement home. Since this must have been true elsewhere in Europe, we glimpse an oft forgotten but crucial need fulfilled by monastics. Better-known are the ways the monastery might have educated even laypeople from the surrounding area (13, 25), and of course commemorated deceased benefactors (119).

By virtue of its far-flung and diversified holdings, the monastery could also serve as a driver of socio-economic changes. Most notable here is the famous three-field system, which replaced the two-field system of cultivation around St. Gall at a very early date, perhaps even before the ninth century (131). This risky changeover probably made farming more productive. Was this technical innovation encouraged by St. Gall’s secure position, either as a solution imposed from above, or prompted from below?

Besides the key (and perhaps unsurprising) centrality of the monastery in the world sketched by these documents, other points of social history are deftly incorporated in the volume, and these usually attest recent historiographical perspectives. The complex gradient between individual freedom and unfreedom is treated with nuance, showing the influence of Alice Rio’s recent work (43, 75, 123, 127). I was particularly struck by the example of the unfree servus Waldcoz (ChSG 46), who, contrary to expectations, owned a farm and even had other servi as farmhands. With regards to literacy, the fact that the charters betray the existence of 140 St. Gall scribes, and perhaps hundreds more outside the monastery (21), would seem to support Rosamond McKitterick’s maximalist position on lay literacy (Carolingians and the Written Word). However, here the contributors are also careful to imply caveats, namely that those who could not read might still be able to recognise the authority of a document by its appearance, rather than its content (29), and that witnesses never sign charters with their own hand (59). Finally, from time to time we get a glimpse of the rights and roles of women: they are rarely witnesses in charters, for example, and they have some autonomy regarding their dos (≈ dower), but less than in other places or times. The latter helps to refine the generally rosy picture found in Herlihy’s classic 1962 article (“Land, Family and Women,” Traditio 18).

Physically, the book is remarkable in a number of ways. Rather than just being illuminating, the book is illuminated with many different types of visuals. These include six full-spread colour illustrations of various scenes (made by, like an imagined birds-eye view of the monastery in the ninth century. Or the image of the Schwarzenegg escarpment (38-40), which folds out to become quasi-panoramic! There are various black-and-white images as well, most to illustrate a series of brief asides on the physical processes of creating a parchment document, e.g., “Ink and Quill” (28, 62, 106, 140, 164, 184). This is in addition to the aforementioned reproductions of 36 charters. These date from 743/46 (ChSG 11) to 905 (ChSG 788), and therefore represent about 6% of the roughly 650 original charters that survive from this time span. The reproductions will be valuable for students, who otherwise rarely see anything like a medieval document up-close, and who will also benefit from the translations or summaries appended on the following pages. Though they are not to scale (even if one folds out: ChSG 39) they would also serve well for an aspiring paleographer. This especially since “the same people who were writing books were also writing charters” (21).

Even the structure of the book is in-and-of-itself a boon to anyone interested in codicology or medieval books. The cover is pock-marked with little “worm” holes, cleverly arranged to form a map of places around St. Gall. The thick card book boards make a passable simulacrum of the heavy wooden ones found in an early medieval binding. The heavy-weight paper is arranged into binion quires, which are thread-sewn through cords plainly visible on the spine.

To transition from the physical virtues of the book to some of its faults, I want to mention a treasure hidden within the volume, which confounded one of my criticisms. Initially I was extremely frustrated whenever I encountered an obscure placename, of which there are many. Lamentably ignorant of Swiss geography, I was lost before references like “between the Thurgau river in the south and the Baar region in the north” (51); “in the upper valley of the Steinach” (95); “property in Madetswil” (111). Yet when I re-opened the book to begin my notes for this review, I discovered a hidden pocket inside the back pastedown. There I found a wonderful full-colour map (98 × 68 cm), where every placename mentioned is highlighted in its own colour.

Criticisms remain, but they are minor. No hidden guide helped me when I wanted to know the date of ChSG 2, mentioned several times as the archive’s “oldest charter” (e.g., 149, 169). Turning to the wonderful new resource at, I found it dates to 716/21. But vague references to unreproduced charters and sources abound. I loved the story of the theft of Count Birhtilo’s beehive (165), but no student would be able to determine it came from the end of the Vita s. Galli vetustissima (c. 770; BHL 3245). It would furthermore be helpful to students and non-specialist readers to have a guide explaining prices and costs as evidenced by the charters, which are replete with such information. We hear, for example, that “the value of an ox was not much less than that of a horse, around five solidi or seven gold coins” (177), but a more systematic treatment would have given readers a better sense of how much money people had, and what things were worth in monetary terms. Finally, the celebrated Plan of St. Gall (c. 825) is mentioned several times (e.g., 21, 83) throughout the book, and was central to the exhibition. It would have been nice to have found a copy of it as well, perhaps tucked into the front pastedown.

More significantly, I was bothered that trees get the short end of the stick (141). The section supposedly devoted to them says little, particularly about the various species that would have been mentioned in the documents, and their possible uses. This against sections about grain (153) or fabric (173) that go into more specifics. Paolo Squatriti’s recent book has shown how careful arboriculture, particularly of chestnuts, played a key role in a larger, diversified subsistence plan in the early Middle Ages (Landscape and Change in Early Medieval Italy). Seeing that Squatriti also based himself largely on documentary sources, much more might have been said here about the role trees played in early medieval life around St. Gall.

For the most part the translation is direct and engaging. I found only a few instances where the English seems unclear, crabbed, or too inflected by the original. The worst is a phrase on 149 (“But also in the early Middle Ages...”). Occasionally words seem ill-chosen: “securing” (51); “causes” (55) > “disputes” (?); “streets” (127) > “roads”; “fertile” (169) > “prolific.” A redundant translation from the Latin on 87 (“stammering...half-stammering”) about Notker might have been improved with “half-babbling”, as this would accord better with the sense of blatero. There are a few straight-out typos, such as “barely” for “barley” (153), and on 161, we should read “two or four horses” (for “oxen”), as the rest of the section is about horses. The pettiest criticism, with which I will conclude, is that the size of a parchment document is likened to an A4 size sheet of paper (7). Given that the translation is made into American English, it would have made more sense to say “Letter sized”.

These faults did little to diminish my admiration for this book. Things I learned from it enlivened my conversations with my family, and my four-year-old daughter--to my delight--enjoyed perusing the documents as well as the illustrations. Its modest price would make it the perfect gift for any medieval historian, or the perfect addition not only to his/her bookshelf but also the coffee table. Indeed, it would be a good option for a medievalist wishing to banish misconceptions about the Middle Ages amongst friends and relatives. Peter Erhart, his collaborators, and the translators have given voice to the long forgotten Cozpert, Waldcoz, Beata and their peers, so that a wide audience might finally learn about their lives. In 1200 years, will someone do the same for us?