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Charters, did you say?

5 August, 2009

Charters, did you say?

I’ve been thinking about my book project, which keeps getting pushed around for things like conference papers and now possibly an abstract for an extended version of my Leeds paper to see if it can be published. In many ways, this project, the paper/article, and the next project are all pretty closely linked, which is a good thing. Even better is that they don’t overlap too much, so I won’t be covering lots of the same ground over and over, and citing myself ad nauseam.

But I’m having to do a fairly heavy-duty re-think about the projects, largely because a knowledgeable manuscript person offered me tons of advice, but also some very public questions, about why I was wasting my time with an edited collection from the 19th C., and one that has its failings, when the larger cartulary from which this collection and another are drawn. Because, you see, apparently there are now facsimile mss available. And of course this sort of freaks me out, because I’m supposed to be a medievalist and all, and I am now senior faculty (although a junior member of senior faculty!), and I have never dealt with real manuscripts because … everybody uses this edition. It’s been pretty standard for lots of us for a very long time. And I have a sort of contract to work specifically with that bunch of documents. I think that will not be so much of a problem, in that I can add caveats about the documents and their edited version to the final product, and then people can go and check the mss in the cartulary if they choose.

But there is another issue. Much of what I work on depends on witness lists as much as anything else in the charters. I’m not, nor have I ever claimed to be, an expert in charters — just someone very familiar with this particular collection. And I’ve done a fair bit of reading in Personennamenkunde and Verfassungs- und Verwaltungsgeschichte, where witness lists are generally used as evidence. If I could (or better, if one of you could) remember, I could even cite a couple of places where I’ve read that witness lists are important, and that the order that the names appear is also important. Even without that, I’m pretty sure that’s something people agree on. But one of the things I didn’t know is that witness lists were often added at times and places other than where documents were drawn up. That’s awkward. But I’m also not sure how important it is. That is, even if the names were added later, the names were added for a reason, and so we can use the evidence for either what was true, or to show what someone intended, and maybe even what people were thought to have been important to a particular case. And this is one of the cases where going to the original (for values of original) ms and checking to see if the witness list was part of the original document makes a lot of sense.

A second question is whether or not people signed themselves or whether they made a mark next to their names, or whether their names were just listed by the scribe or notary. Again, at this remove, I’m not sure how important it is. I’d have to look at a charter with a witness list made up of signatures to see if they are all in different hands — but would I be able to tell? Also, is the lack of actual signatures evidence of anything other than local custom and/or a population that may not have written very much? Again, I’m not sure.

My final question is probably the toughest: my colleague claimed that in later versions of many cartularies, and probably mine, the compilers often discarded the witness lists on purpose. This may even have been especially true when the names of women appeared in the witness lists. Hmmm. First, I have a big bunch of charters, many of which have witness lists, and I have no way of knowing whether or not these documents ever had such an element. I think Wendy Davies said in her presentation (or someone at Leeds did) that often donations by people who weren’t all that important didn’t warren witness lists, because the stakes were pretty low and the power to prove a document was often weighed in favour of the receiving ecclesiastical institution. Now, many of these charters are definitely short and don’t have witness lists, and don’t list much in the way of donations. So I expect that we can make a reasonable assumption, other things being equal, that the donors were probably not all that important in the world of Carolingian politics.

Here’s the real clicker, though. If something doesn’t exist in many cases, does the lack of existence prove that documents were deliberately edited to remove the lists, or does it merely prove that there is a probably lack of evidence? And if we know that there is evidence missing, does it negate our ability to use the evidence we *do* have, as long as we use accepted forms of caveats to frame our conclusions? And where do things like notitia, when there are no supporting documents, fit in?

I’m just asking because these seem to be questions that are really important, and yet I am not sure they are so vital that we should all stop using specific source collections just because they are problematic, rather than false.

Oh. this was going to be longer, but I seem to have fallen asleep while writing. Carry on. I’ll be back to re-read this and edit later!

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 5 August, 2009 3:00 pm

    Oh heavens so many things I want to say to this… And first attempt at the comment breaks Blogger's size limits, so two blocks of it, sorry. First and foremost, I believe you are now in the sort of disquiet in which I started those Leeds sessions 🙂 There is a kind of agenda paper on the web here in which I set that disquiet out to make sure contributors to the book knew what I was getting at. Now I will do my famous impression of someone who knows this stuff rather than someone who still needs to read shedloads on it, as follows.Most importantly, and as discussed at Leeds itself, I think that you are right to think that your project does need to be a digital version of that edition, precisely because as you say people use it, and that will do. But whatever detail you can get in about where the manuscript differs will obviously enhance its value.But don't despair! Manuscripts are not so hard, especially good high Carolingian ones like this. And you already have a transcription/edition so you are well on the way. Are there not points in the analysis of this text where you've wondered, "Does it really say that? This alternate reading would make much more sense?" I'd say, make those your targets and don't sweat the rest too much, at least not for the immediate projects.Next, er, witnesses. The order witnesses appear in is possibly important, but the only person who's been able to do much with this is Simon Keynes for the late Anglo-Saxon material, in his Diplomas of King Aethelred the Unready, where he was able to show rises and falls in status through positions. This only really works because Anglo-Saxon charters are so formal; something that you or I would deal with where people actually signed is a lot less organised on the actual parchment and you have to bear in mind that the order in an edition may be more or less arbitrary as the signatures will not have been in neat rows or lines and will have been all kinds of sizes. Have a look at my signing nuns in this post for an example of what I mean. There are a few royal and noble charters from León where the witnesses are arranged in columns, and it's hard to know what this means but once or twice it is explicitly geographical; the witnesses from one village sign left, another central, the third right. This makes me wonder if other columns may not be individual nobles and their retainers or parties, but there's no work on this yet a far as I know. In little private or local charters like ours, I don't think there's any scope for this sort of work.More in second comment…

  2. 5 August, 2009 3:04 pm

    Second half! Oh for heavens' sakes this is too long by itself. So, three, sorry. Next, it is true that witness lists are often systematically not copied up in cartularies. I would however be, despite our notable colleague's iconoclasm, shocked to the core if they had never been there in the originals. Witnesses die, their relevance is obviously lifetime only (and there's an Elisabeth van Houts paper in Gendering the Middle Ages that covers ways the Franks got round this) so if you're copying up a century and a half later… why bother? But everything we know about these transactions from where originals or full copies are preserved suggests that the gathering of people for the transfer and their record as present was a core part of proceedings. I don't remember Wendy saying this, and I've startled her with the news that Catalan charters often only have three witnesses, or even fewer, so I don't think it can have been her who said it; I didn't spot it being said but maybe that means it wasn't for our period. That said, they may not have witnessed the actual document, so if you think these things are being written up elsewhere this might be one way to tell. But fundamentally, yes, witness lists are important, though exactly why depends on what we think the actual writing of the transaction is achieving and this is an area full of assumption and not much actual knowledge IMO. Places to go for more on this are Wendy's Small Worlds, an article by Ross Balzaretti as follows: "The Politics of Property in Ninth-Century Milan: familial motives and monastic strategies in the village of Inzago" in Mélanges de l'École de France : moyen âge Vol. 111 (Rome 1999), pp. 747-770, and well, me; the first chapter of my thesis has some worked-out examples of why this stuff needs care and is online here (PDF). Some day this will become the basis of an article but it's not ready yet I'm afraid. The whole more social aspect of transaction is as ever best covered in Rosenwein's Neighbors of St Peter I think but there is more out there that I haven't read yet.More in third…

  3. 5 August, 2009 3:05 pm

    Lastly… Autograph signatures, next: great when you have them but even in my area, and even with people whom one knows can sign because they do so in other documents, not everyone who could signs themselves. I suspect this may mean they weren't there when the document was signed; but at what stage in proceedings was that? And so on. And everywhere of course there are people who couldn't sign anyway. So these are unanswerable questions I think, at least from silence. Sorry.Lastly, the `real clicker':If something doesn't exist in many cases, does the lack of existence prove that documents were deliberately edited to remove the lists, or does it merely prove that there is a probably lack of evidence? And if we know that there is evidence missing, does it negate our ability to use the evidence we *do* have, as long as we use accepted forms of caveats to frame our conclusions? And where do things like notitia, when there are no supporting documents, fit in?Lack of evidence is just difficult. I think, as I say, that witness lists lose relevance really quickly. German-speaking areas are even more problematic; the questions I was asking Hans Hummer the other day about Freising, where nobody ever produces charters in cases rather than witnesses but there are loads of charters, that may therefore be mainly for internal use, are very relevant here. Did your house bring documents to court? Or are they merely inventory? If the latter, maybe they often didn't record witnesses, but there were almost certainly some at some point. If people do bring documents to court (and they do at least twice, your pet edition nos 248 & 513, though much more often not, says Hübner via Lay Archives at least) then I'd say that the witnesses would have been worth recording at the time so it may just be later copying practice when they're not there.Phew. How's that? I think that last thing might be the only useful bit, somehow.

  4. 5 August, 2009 5:47 pm

    Re Simon Keynes as doing something with witness lists showing that order is important … maybe — I mean, yes, he does that, but it's not where I got the idea. That's definitely from the German scholarship. Possibly in one of the articles (the Friese one?) in Das Klostergemeindschaft von Fulda but it could also be in one of the other gajillion things I've read over the years. I really need to transcribe my notes one of these days … wish I had a competent work-study student, but none of ours ever can be trusted to copy notes written in English, let alone foreign languages — and it's not just my writing!By importance, though, I would argue with Keynes a little — it's not just to do with rank, although when you see comital and episcopal witnesses, it can be. My own impression, both from the Carolingian Fulda charters and from the nebulous German scholarship, is that it has more to do with importance in terms of the transaction, so first, the donor(s), then their relatives and neighbors, then other people who might have been around or whose interests aren't clear.

  5. 6 August, 2009 10:07 am

    If you've got German cases where this works I'd be very interested to know about them, actually. My sense with my Catalan ones is that nobles and ecclesiastics will tend to come at the beginning or the end of a list, but the more experience I have with originals the more I come to reckon that this is as much editorial convention as anything. Or, which is slightly more explicable in historical terms, the scribe does the signatures of those who can't write (or aren't there) and then those who can (so, principally the priests and clerics) write their own names, bigger and in rustics, below. So the editors put them last. Fair enough really. But again, have a look at that nun's signatures charter I linked to: the counts are in the middle, and though the scribe put guide signatures down for a few witnesses they didn't actually sign near them. And that's a big assembly. So with my stuff it doesn't work, but if you have Fichtenau or someone saying it does that would be a very interesting comparator…


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