Seminar II: Charters, Cartularies (and Other Administrative Records)

Charters are one of the few archival sources to survive in significant quantities for the entire medieval period. They are usually short, self-contained texts, concerned with the ownership of land or of some other right or privilege. Some record the transfer these rights from one person or institution to another or purport to do so, others confirm the ownership of such rights, many are concerned with the legal conditions and obligations that go with the holding of particular rights or properties. They record acts of authority and had considerable force as records that might be used in court or to obtain further confirmations of the rights they record; but they did not, in the earliest period, constitute legal instruments in themselves even though they often drawn up by clerks present at the ‘issuing’ authority’s court. It was the oral transaction and the sacred rituals that accompanied it—the utterances of the king or authority who made or confirmed the grant, the oaths offered and the gesture of the cross—which constituted the legal act. The lists of witnesses often attached to charters should not, therefore, be understood as a list of those who ‘signed’ the document, but as a record of those who were present when these acts of authority took place.

The internal organisation of charters is often highly formulaic, the conventions in use varying according to time and place. In its classic form—as found in the tenth century, before a tendency to abbreviate takes over in the later eleventh and twelfth centuries—the English royal charter typically had most of the following components:

  1. an invocation (i.e. an invocation of the deity in words and often also conveyed by the use of the chi-rho symbol);
  2. a proem or arenga, which provides a religious rationale for the grant;
  3. an exposition, a passage or phrase which links the grant which follows to the religious rationale;
  4. a superscription or intitulatio, a passage which identifies the authority issuing the grant;
  5. a dispositive section, which names the recipient of the grant and details the conditions under which it is made;
  6. a sanction, anathema or curse, a passage which affirms that God will punish those who violate the grant if not in this world then at the Last Judgement;
  7. a boundary clause (but see below);
  8. a dating clause, typically but not always given at the end of the document;
  9. a witness list in which each name is marked with a chrismon or cross; and
  10. an endorsement, a short summary of the charter written on the outside of the document so that it could be identified in its folded form.

firebeastSeals—impressions set in a mixture of bees-wax and resin made using a metal matrix—were used to close letters (especially official correspondence) in Anglo-Saxon England, but not, it seems, to validate charters. The only genuine documents to survive from before 1066 with seals attached are writs of Edward the Confessor (1042–65), and Gervase of Canterbury says that he was ‘the first of the kings of England who appended pressed wax on his charters as a testimony of the truth’ (Gesta regum Anglorum, ed. Stubbs, RS 83 (1880), ii, 59). A little doubt must remain as to whether Edward was the first to issue charters as well as writs in this way, but the practice was certainly well established by the end of Willliam the Conqueror’s reign, and it soon became widespread for lords of all kinds when it had not previously been the norm in either England or Normandy. In the early English instances a double-sided seal created with the help of a press encloses a strip or tongue of vellum attached to the document. Each side had two elements: an inscription around the outer edge naming the person whose seal it was and the image or device at its centre. The image on the chief side often showed for an institution a building or for an individual their bust or upper three-quarters front on or in profile. Figures are often shown holding an object that symbolises their socio-political function, such as a book for a cleric or a sword or sceptre for a secular lord. Seals had long been used to authenticate royal charters in both eastern and western Frankia, but they were pressed onto the sheet itself—except, that is, in the case of seals made of lead or gold which were affixed with strings of hemp or ribbons.

Though some charters were produced in the form of libelli or booklets, most were first issued on single-sheets. Having received them in these forms their recipients (or those who later gained possession of the rights or properties to which they pertained) might and often did subsequently copy them into books or registers known after the nature of their contents as ‘cartularies’. Indeed, many texts are known only from the later copies found in these books, and sometimes only from the great registers which record the findings of the royal clerks who surveyed the landholdings of England in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. But in contrast to the situation with other types of short document, large numbers of charters survive in their original form—for England, at least. Of the one thousand texts known, for example, for the Anglo-Saxon period, a good number, some two hundred, survive as ‘originals’: that is, for two-hundred or so the earliest witness now extant is a single sheet written in a hand consistent with the stated date and place of issue—one made in the presence (or with the knowledge) of the king in whose name it was issued. These witnesses are particularly important in so far as they are free from the distortions introduced by repeated copying and interpolation—by the editorial interventions of those who found their texts insufficient.

Forgery through interpolation was not uncommon. Changes in legal practice and the invention of new obligations often exposed gaps in the provisions made when charters were first issued, necessitating the modification of clauses and sometimes the insertion of entirely new provisions. Thus, many later copies show signs of interpolation, but these alterations are themselves significant in as much as they bear witness to subtle changes in the situation and concerns of those who held property and power.

firebeastThe historical significance of charters is manifold. They seldom provide enough information to establish fully the contexts in which they were issued, but the data that remains can have immense value. They can be used, for example, to establish land-holding patterns in a particular region or within the estates of a particular family, they can be used to construct a picture of individual or familial piety, and their witness lists can be used to identify the persons attached to the issuing authority’s court and that circle’s evolution over time. They can sometimes even be used to identify those in the circle of the donor. The language of charters is usually highly formulaic, and becomes increasingly so in the later Middle Ages, but it is this very feature which makes them important for the study of political thought. Subtle changes in these formulas can speak to far-reaching shifts in the notions of authority and service which governed social and political practice.

Most charters survive because they record the transfer of rights attached to estates that came into the possession of a religious house (or one of the few enduring baronies or honours), and the way in which these archives were managed is itself a significant subject—one which bears witness to the gradual evolution of a literate mentality and to the way in which historical knowledge was organised and deployed in long-lived and privileged communities. The contents of cartularies were often selected and sometimes edited in order to answer particular needs and concerns. Some collections of charters were illustrated or decorated, reflecting the wealth and pretensions of the persons or institutions for whom they were produced. Some imitate the layout and script of the originals, reproducing the rotas of papal privileges and other authenticating symbols.

The boundary-clauses of charters have their own special significance for the study of the medieval landscape. They typically start in one corner of the estate and proceed in a clockwise direction from feature to feature around the perimeter to end where they began. Some survive as free-standing texts, recorded in cartularies or on loose sheets. The recording of bounds seems to have taken off, for England, in the later Anglo-Saxon period, especially the period between 930 and 1000. But their use seems to have been governed by regional custom, with the vast majority being found in records from the southern and western England. Over half of the surviving bounds concern estates in the counties of Worcestershire, Wiltshire, Hampshire, Berkshire, and Kent. A few charters provide evidence, furthermore, for the use of boundary clauses to establish the limits of estates: Sawyer 1441 describes, for example, how one party to a dispute led the other around ‘all the boundaries’ reading the landmarks from þam aldan bocum, that is, ‘the old documents’.

Topics for Consideration

  1. The uses of charters.
  2. The internal organisation of charters.
  3. The evolution of the charter from its putative Roman origins through to the later Middle Ages.
  4. Methods for establishing the authenticity of charters and for dating forgeries.
  5. The range of manuscripts in which charters are preserved, from single sheets to large scale cartularies.
  6. The ways in which historians can exploit charters as evidence.

Manuscripts for Discussion

  1. London, British Library, Harley Charter 43, C.2
  2. London, British Library, MS Additional 15350 / Codex Wintoniensis
  3. Magdeburg, Landeshauptarchiv Sachsen Anhalt, Rep. U. 1, Tit. I, Nr. 31

Introductory Reading

Further Reading

Facsimiles

  • Bishop, T. A. M. (ed.), Scriptores regis: Facsimiles to Identify and Illustrate the Hands of Royal Scribes in Original Charters of Henry I, Stephen, and Henry II (Oxford, 1961). Oversize MVE.
  • Bond, E. A. (ed.), Facsimiles of Ancient Charters in the British Museum, 4 vols (London, 1873–8). Legal History Collection 34LEI: Enquiries. Parts 2–4 only.
  • Johnson, C. B., and H. Jenkinson, English Court Hand A.D. 1066 to 1500: Illustrated Chiefly from the Public Records, 2 pts. (Oxford, 1915; rpt. New York, 1967). Part 1 = text; Part 2 = 44 leaves of plates. LDY.
  • Keynes, S. D. (ed.), Facsimiles of Anglo-Saxon Charters, Anglo-Saxon Charters: Supplementary Volumes 1 (Oxford, 1991).
  • Patterson, R. B. (ed.), Earldom of Gloucester Charters: The Charters and Scribes of the Earls and Countesses of Gloucester to A.D. 1227 (Oxford, 1973). Oversize MVG3.
  • Salter, H. E. (ed.), Facsimiles of Early Charters in Oxford Muniment Rooms (Oxford, 1929). Oversize MWJD.
  • Sanders, W. B. (ed.), Facsimiles of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts, Ordnance Survey Facsimiles, 3 vols. (Southampton, 1878–84).
  • Warner, G. F., and H. Ellis (ed.), Facsimiles of Royal and Other Charters in the British Museum, vol. 1, William I–Richard I (London, 1903). LEIea.

Useful Series, Calendars of Documents and Websites

  • Anglo-Saxon Charters, ed. S. D. Keynes et al., (London, 1973–). This series aims to publish all the surviving pre-Conquest title deeds, whoever their grantee and whatever their diplomatic form—that is, wills and memoranda as well as diplomas and writs, and leases as well as grants in perpetuity.
  • Archivum Secretum Apostolicum Vaticanum. The website to the Secret Archives of the Vatican is a mine of useful material.
  • Davis, H. W. C., R. J. Whitwell, C. Johnson, H. A. Cronne (eds), Regesta regum Anglo-Normannorum, 1066–1154, 4 vols. (Oxford, 1913–69).
  • English Episcopal Acta, ed. D. M. Smith et al. (London, 1980–). Thus far extending to 33 volumes, this series aims to publish (or in some cases, to calendar) the complete output of England’s episcopal chanceries. Many volumes include useful discussions of the diplomatic conventions employed in these documents.
  • LangScape: The Language of Landscape—Reading the Anglo-Saxon Countryside. An on-line searchable database of Anglo-Saxon estate boundaries / descriptions of the countryside made by the Anglo-Saxons themselves.
  • The Electronic Sawyer. A revised, augmented, and updated form of P. H. Sawyer, Anglo-Saxon Charters: An Annotated List and Bibliography (London, 1968). Covers Sawyer nos. 1–1602. The print version is shelved at MVC.C. A revised online catalogue providing links to texts and translations is in preparation.

Charters and Cartularies

  • Barrow, G. W. S. (ed.), The Charters of King David: The Written Acts of David I, King of Scots, 1124–53, and of his Son, Henry, Earl of Northumberland (Woodbridge, 1999). MXBF.C.
  • Barrow, J. S., ‘Why Forge Episcopal Acta? Preliminary Observations on the Forged Charters in the English Episcopal Acta Series’, in P. Hoskin, C. Brooke and B. Dobson (eds), The Foundations of Medieval English Ecclesiastical History: Studies Presented to David Smith (Woodbridge, 2005), pp. 18–39.
  • Birch, W. de G. (ed.), Cartularium Saxonicum: A Collection of Charters Relating to Anglo-Saxon History, 3 vols. and index (London, 1885–99).
  • Bouchard, C. B., ‘Forging Papal Authority: Charters from the Monastery of Montier-en-Der’, Church History, 69 (2000), 1–17.
  • Bowman, J. A., ‘From Written Record to Historical Memory: Narrating the Past in Iberian Charters’, in R. A. Maxwell (ed.), Representing History 1000–1300: Art, Music, History (University Park, PA, 2010), pp. 173–80 and 247–50.
  • Bresslau, H., Handbuch der Urkundenlehre für Deutschland und Italien, 3 vols. (4th edn, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1969).
  • Brown, E. A. R., ‘Falsitas pia sive reprehensibilis. Medieval Forgers and their Intentions’, in Wolfram Setz (ed.), Fälschungen im Mittelalter, MGH Schriften 33, 5 vols. (Hannover, 1988), I, pp. 101–20.
  • Brown, W. C., M. Costambeys, M. Innes, A. Kosto (eds), Documentary Culture and the Laity in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge, 2012).
  • Chaplais, P., ‘The Origin and the Authenticity of the Anglo-Saxon Diploma’, Journal of the Society of Archivists, 3 (1965–69), 48–61; rpt. in F. Ranger (ed.), Prisca Munimenta: Studies presented to Dr A. E. J. Hollaender (London, 1973), pp. 28–42.
  • Chaplais, P., ‘The Anglo-Saxon Chancery: From Diploma to the Writ’, Journal of the Society of Archivists, 3 (1965–69), 160–76; rpt. in F. Ranger (ed.), Prisca Munimenta: Studies presented to Dr A. E. J. Hollaender (London, 1973), pp. 43–62.
  • Clay, C. T., Sir (ed.), Early Yorkshire Families, With illustrative documents edited by D. E. Greenway (Leeds, 1973). MWS.
  • Constable, G., ‘Forgery and Plagiarism in the Middle Ages’, Archiv für Diplomatik, 29 (1983), 1–41.
  • Everard, J., ‘Lay Charters and the Acta of Henry II’, Anglo-Norman Studies, 30 (2008), 100–16.
  • Fichtenau, H., Arenga: Spätantike und Mittelalter im Spiegel von Urkundenformeln (Graz, 1957).
  • Foot, S., ‘Reading Anglo-Saxon Charters: Memory, Record, or Story?’, in E. M. Tyler and R. Balzaretti (eds), Narrative and History in the Early Medieval West, Studies in the Early Middle Ages (Turnhout, 2006), pp. 39–65. MBR.
  • Foulds, F., ‘Medieval Cartularies’, Archives: The Journal of the British Record Association, 18 (1987), 3–35. Journals L6.
  • Freed, J. B., ‘The Creation of the Codex Falkensteinensis (1166): Self-Representation and Reality’, in B. K. U. Weiler and S. Maclean (eds), Representations of Power in Medieval Germany, 800–1500, International Medieval Research 16 (Turnhout, 2006), pp. 189–210. MHB.J.
  • Galbraith, V. H., ‘Monastic Foundation Charters of the 11th and 12th Centuries’, Cambridge Historical Journal, 4 (1932–4), 205–22. Journals L6. For forgeries in cartularies.
  • Geary, P. J., ‘From Charter to Cartulary: From Archival Practice to History’, in R. A. Maxwell (ed.), Representing History 1000–1300: Art, Music, History (University Park, PA, 2010), pp. 181–6 and 250–2.
  • Geary, P. J., Phantoms of Remembrance: Memory and Oblivion at the End of the First Millennium (Princeton, NJ, 1994).
  • Gervers, M. (ed.), Dating Undated Medieval Charters (Woodbridge, 2000). LEI. Papers first presented at a conference hosted by Collegium Budapest/Institute for Advanced Study, March, 1999.
  • Giry, A., Manuel de Diplomatique: Diplomes et chartes, chronologie technique, éléments critiques et parties constitutives de la teneur des chartes, les chancelleries, les actes privés (Paris, 1894).
  • Guyotjeannin, O., L. Morelle, M. Parisse (ed.), Les Cartulaires: Actes de la table ronde organisie par l’Ecole nationale des chartes et le G.D.R. 121 du C.N.R.S (Paris, 5–7 décembre 1991), Mémoires et documents de l’Ecole des chartes 39 (Paris, 1993).
  • Hiatt, A., The Making of Medieval Forgeries: False Documents in Fifteenth-Century England (London, 2004).
  • Hector, L. C., Palaeography and Forgery (London, 1959). 7LDea.
  • Hector, L. C., The Handwriting of English Documents (London, 1958; 2nd edn, London, 1966). LDY.
  • Heidecker, K. (ed.), Charters and the Use of the Written Word in Medieval Society (Utrecht, 2000). LEI.
  • Hudson, J., Land, Law, and Lordship in Anglo-Norman England (Oxford, 1994). SN60.
  • Hyams, P. R., ‘Charters as a Source for the Early English Common Law’, Journal of Legal History, 12 (1991), 173–89. Journals S6.
  • Hyams, P. R., ‘Warranty and Good Lordship in Twelfth-Century England’, Law and History Review, 5 (1987), 437–503. JSTOR. Journals S6.
  • Keats-Rohan, K. S. B. (ed.), The Cartulary of the Abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel (Donington, 2006).
  • Kemble, J. M. (ed.), Codex Diplomaticus Aevi Saxonici, 6 vols. (London, 1839–48). 34MU5 Enquiries.
  • Kemp, B. R. (ed.), Reading Abbey Cartularies: British Library Manuscripts, Egerton 3031, Harley 1708 and Cotton Vespasian E.XXV, Camden Society, 4th ser., 33 (London, 1987). MU6.
  • Keynes, S. D., The Diplomas of Æthelred ‘the Unready’ 978–1016: A Study in their Use as Historical Evidence, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, 3rd ser. 13 (Cambridge, 1980). MVD.
  • Kosto, A. J., ‘Laymen, Clerics, and Documentary Practices in the Early Middle Ages: The Example of Catalonia’, Speculum, 80 (2003), 44–74. JSTOR; Journals L6.
  • Kosto, A. J., and A. Winroth (eds), Charters, Cartularies and Archives: The Preservation and Transmission of Documents in the Medieval West, Proceedings of a Colloquium of the Commission Internationnale de Diplomatique, Princeton and New York, 16–18 September 1999 (Turnhout, 2002). Includes: C. B. Bouchard, ‘Monastic Cartularies: Organizing Eternity’ (pp. 22–32).
  • Loud, G. A., ‘The Chancery and Charters of the Kings of Sicily (1130–1212)’, The English Historical Review, 124 (2009), 779–810.
  • Morelle, L., ‘Diplomatic Culture and History Writing: Folcuin’s Cartulary-Chronicle of Saint-Bertin’, in R. A. Maxwell (ed.), Representing History 1000-1300: Art, Music, History (University Park, PA, 2010), pp. 53–65 and 221–4.
  • Pratesi, A., Genesi e forme del documento medievale (Rome, 1979).
  • Rio, A., ‘Charters, Law Codes and Formulae: The Franks between Theory and Practice’, in P. Fouracre and D. Ganz (eds), Frankland: The Franks and the World of Early Medieval Europe: Essays in Honour of Dame Janet Nelson (Manchester, 2008), pp. 7–27. MSBF7.
  • Rio, A., Legal Practice and the Written Word in the Early Middle Ages: Frankish Formulae, c. 500–1000, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, 4th Ser. (Cambridge, 2009).
  • Rosenwein, B. H., To be the Neighbour of Saint Peter: The Social Meaning of Cluny’s Property, 909–1049 (Ithaca, NY, 1989).
  • Stenton, F. M., The Latin Charters of the Anglo-Saxon Period (Oxford, 1955).
  • Stubbs, W.,. Select Charters Illustrative of English Constitutional History: From the Earliest Times to the Reign of Edward the First, rev. H. W. C. Davis (9th edn, Oxford, 1913). MVB.C.
  • Thomson, S. D., Anglo-Saxon Royal Diplomas: A Palaeography (Woodbridge, 2007).
  • West, J. R. (ed.), St Benet of Holme, 1020–1210: The Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Sections of Cott. MS Galba E.II, The Register of the Abbey of St Benet of Holme, 2 vols., Norfolk Record Society 2–3 (Norwich, 1932). MWGP.K.

Other Administrative Documents

  • Bailey, M., The English Manor c.1200–c.1500: Selected Sources, Manchester Medieval Sources (Manchester, 2002). MVB.H.
  • Clarke, H. B., ‘Evesham J and Evesham L: Two Early Twelfth-Century Manorial Surveys’, Anglo-Norman Studies, 30 (2008), 62–84.
  • Harmer, F. E., Anglo-Saxon Writs (Manchester, 1952). MVC5.
  • Harvey, P. D. A., Manorial Records, British Records Association (2nd edn. 1999). Pamphlets LEO. The useful chapter on ‘estate accounts’ is reprinted in R. H. Parker and B. S. Yamey, Accounting History: Some British Contributions (Oxford, 1994), pp. 91–115.
  • Slavin, P., ‘The Sources for Manorial and Rural History’, in J. T. Rosenthal (ed.), Understanding Medieval Primary Sources: Using Historical Sources to Discover Medieval Europe, Routledge Guides to Using Historical Sources (London, 2012), pp. 131–48. MB.
  • Stacy, N. E. (ed.), Charters and Custumals of Shaftesbury Abbey, 1089–1216, Records of Social and Economic History, new ser. 39 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). MWMB.K.
  • Stone, E., ‘Profit-and-Loss Accountancy at Norwich Cathedral Priory’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th ser. 12 (1962), 25–48. JSTOR; Journals L6.
  • Tollerton, L., Wills and Will Making in Anglo-Saxon England (Woodbridge, 2011). 
  • Woolgar, C. M., Household Accounts from Medieval England, Records of Social and Economic History, new ser. 17–18 (London, 1992–3). LESea.
  • Wray, S. K., and R. Cossar, ‘Wills as Primary Sources’, in J. T. Rosenthal (ed.), Understanding Medieval Primary Sources: Using Historical Sources to Discover Medieval Europe, Routledge Guides to Using Historical Sources (London, 2012), pp. 59–71. MB.

Seals and Sigillography

  • Bedos-Rezak, B., ‘Suger and the Symbolism of Royal Power: The Seal of Louis VII’, in P. L. Gerson (ed.), Abbot Suger and Saint-Denis: A Symposium (New York, 1986), pp. 95103.
  • Chaplais, P., ‘The Seals and Original Charters of Henry I’, English Historical Review, 75 (1960), 260–75. JSTOR; Journals L6.
  • Ellis, R. H., Catalogue of Seals in the Public Record Office: Monastic Seals (London, 1986). LCN.
  • Ellis, R. H., Catalogue of Seals in the Public Record Office: Personal Seals, 2 vols. (London, 1978–81). LCN.
  • Harvey, P. D. A., ‘Personal Seals in Thirteenth-Century England’, in I. N. Wood and G. A. Loud (eds), Church and Chronicle in the Middle Ages: Essays presented to John Taylor (London, 1991), pp. 117–27. L43ea.B.
  • Harvey, P. D. A., and A. McGuinness, A Guide to British Medieval Seals (Toronto, 1996). LCN.
  • Heslop, T. A., ‘Twelfth-Century Forgeries as Evidence for Earlier Seals: The Case of St Dunstan’, in N. L. Ramsay, M. Sparks and T. Tatton-Brown (eds), Dunstan: Life, Times and Cult (Woodbridge, 1992), pp. 299–310. PN.DM.D9.
  • Heslop, T. A., ‘English Seals from the mid-9th Century to 1100’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 133 (1980), 1–16. Available at ingentaconnect.
  • Heslop, T. A., ‘The Seals of the Twelfth-Century Earls of Chester’, Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society, 71 (1991), 179–97.
  • Jenkinson, H., A Guide to Seals in the Public Record Office (London, 1954). Pamphlet LC.
  • New, E. A., Seals and Sealing Practices, Archives and the User 11 (London, 2010).
  • Rigold, S. E., ‘Two Common Species of Seal-Matrix’, Antiquaries Journal, 57 (1977), 324–29.
  • Roberts, J., ‘What did Anglo-Saxon Seals Seal When?’, Costerus, 163 (2006), 131–57.
  • Wyon, A. B. and A., The Great Seals of England from the Earliest Period to the Present Time (London, 1887). Legal History Collection: 34LCN. Ask Enquiries.

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