Types of charters 1: property grants

Posted: Sept. 8, 2014, 4:32 p.m. by Edward Roberts

Early medieval charters document a wide range of transactions. In the next few instalments, this blog will examine a few of the most common types of activities recorded in the charters preserved from Charlemagne’s reign and explore the contexts of the production of these documents.

The overwhelming majority of the documents in our database – more than 75% – involve grants or transfers of property to churches and monasteries. In the database, you’ll be able to check this for yourself by searching for religious institutions under agents involved in transactions. In order to understand why people gave to ecclesiastical institutions in such abundance and why such donations dominate the surviving documentary record, we need to sketch the social and economic background of this phenomenon.

The growth of Christianity in late antiquity prompted significant changes in the ways ownership was conceived and land was organised and managed. Once Christianity had been legalised and subsequently made the state religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century AD, ecclesiastical leaders gradually determined that the most appropriate form of Christian piety was not to make charitable donations directly to the poor, but rather to give wealth and property over to a singular, common treasury which belonged to God. Alms were thus to be distributed from this collective trust, which was to be administered by the Church (‘the Church’ here designates the ‘universal’ body of Christ’s followers, and by extension often refers to the governing episcopal hierarchy of pope, archbishops, bishops, priests and so forth; by contrast, ‘a church’ normally refers to a physical building and/or a congregation which attended services there, such as a parish church). As caretaker of God’s earthly treasury, the Church in Western Europe subsequently acquired a vast amount of property in the late Roman and Merovingian periods (c.350–750). Great quantities of land were transferred to the secular clergy (namely to bishops, though this term generally denotes non-monastic churchmen, i.e. clerics such as bishops, priests and deacons who usually did not live communally or according to any monastic rule), although monasteries (institutions with religious individuals residing there under a monastic rule, i.e. monks and nuns) increasingly also came to receive donations.

Why did ecclesiastical leaders encourage endowments, and what were the incentives for people to give to the Church? In the fifth century, as the political, economic and social structures of the Roman Empire began to give way, the Church became increasingly institutionalised and bureaucratised. The nature of this complex transformation has been much debated by historians. In many areas of life the functions previously fulfilled by Roman institutions and the roles occupied by Roman officials were replaced by a Christian administration. Under the Empire, an aristocrat could seek a political career in the service of the Roman state, but following its demise in the fifth century, such an individual might now fulfil those ambitions in the service of the Church. In the early Middle Ages, bishops were not simply pastoral and spiritual leaders; they were also politicians, and they played leading roles in both religious and secular affairs. The Church thus required funds to finance this new ‘civil service’. Sustaining the clergy – who came to constitute a relatively large proportion of the population – was costly. Donations were also sought to finance ecclesiastical building work and upkeep, as well as to support the costs of performing the liturgy (i.e. church services), church lighting, manuscript production (writing required substantial quantities of parchment made from animal skin) and more.

But the benefits of giving were not simply one-way: prospective donors stood to gain much from investing in the Church. Individuals endowed churches with an eye to the afterlife. They gave to atone for their sins and to please God and his saints, and thus to secure the eternal wellbeing of their and their family’s souls in heaven. Moreover, there were also material benefits in patronising churches. Lay donors might make grants of property in order to secure clerical or monastic positions for their sons and daughters. The Church could also serve as a kind of ‘land bank’ for families looking for long-term security of their estates, and as we shall see in the following instalment, this need contributed to the development of new forms of agreements which permitted individuals the use of their land while making over the ultimate titles to churches or monasteries. Giving to the Church could thus serve as an inheritance strategy which brought families and religious institutions together in mutually beneficial spiritual, economic and political relationships. When a granter made a donation for a specific reason, you’ll be able to browse or search for this as a transaction motivation.

In the above we have referred to ‘property’, but it should be stressed that ‘property’ was not always ‘land’. A great many charters also involve transfers of unfree persons, for they were also considered property. There is scholarly debate about whether such individuals in the Carolingian period should be equated with ‘serfs’ or ‘slaves’, given that the terminology to describe unfree individuals did not change (the Classical Latin servus, ‘slave’, used throughout this period, is the root of the word ‘serf’) and the living conditions of those in servitude seem to have changed gradually throughout the late antique and early medieval period.

In the database, you’ll be able to search or browse donations using a variety of criteria, such as by object (i.e. the property being given: different types of land such as woodland, meadows, vineyards; buildings such as mills or homesteads; unfree persons; or other moveable objects), by property location, by date of grant, by the individual making the donation (e.g. man, woman, lay person, priest, count, duke, king, etc.), by location of transaction, and much more.

Here are two examples of straightforward property grants, from which the relevant data will be extracted and input for users to find. Note that our database will not provide the full text or a translation of the charter, but the references to these will be listed, and links will be provided where digital versions are available.

First, here is a charter from the cartulary of the monastery of Wissembourg in Alsace, France (no. 135):


If we contribute anything from our goods to the places of the saints or in subsistence for the poor, without doubt we are confident this will be repaid to us in eternal blessedness. Therefore I, Reccho, in God's name, thinking of the fragility of my body and dreading the whole end not a little, but greatly, so that, uncertain about my departure from life, [I give] something before the tribunal, lest I might not gain pardon from the judge. Therefore I give (and count it for mercy and a remedy for my soul and for my stability) to the holy church of the apostle St Peter that is constructed on the River Lauter in the monastery that is called Wissembourg, where Bishop Ermbertus presides. This is what I give in the county of Alsace in the villa which is called Alteckendorf: ten iurnales [of land] and one unfree woman called Baduhilt. Let them have, hold and possess these, and may it benefit in increasing those serving the monastery there. If anyone, etc [it is omitted from the charter, but here would begin a penalty clause for anyone opposing the charter’s provisions]. Witnesses: Reccho, Ado, Heribert. I, Adelland wrote and subscribed [this charter].

(trans. Rachel Stone)


This is a simple grant by a certain Reccho to the monastery of Wissembourg. The charter does not provide the date it was made, but since the modern editor of the cartulary has determined it to fall between 782 and 790, it will accordingly be dated as such in the database. As Reccho says, he is making a donation of 10 iurnales (iurnalis is a unit of land that required a day’s ploughing) and an unfree woman for the sake of his own salvation. You could find this transaction in the database by searching or browsing for, among other things, charters that could have been given in the year 785 (for which this would appear, since the possible range is 782–790), references to Bishop Ermbertus, charters with someone called ‘Heribert’ as a witness, donations of land in Alteckendorf (or in Alsace), transactions with land given in units of iurnalis, grants made to the monastery of Wissembourg, and so forth.

Next, here is no. 169 from the cartulary of the monastery of Lorsch in Hessen, Germany:


Donation of Scoran in the same [aforementioned] villa. In the third year of King Charles, under Abbot Gundolandus.

I, Scoran, in the name of God, for the soul of Meginward, whom his father Heribert handed over to me, grant to St Nazarius the martyr, who rests in body in the Rhine district, in the monastery which is called Lorsch, situated on the River Weschnitz, and so forth, as [described] above ... This is my property in Bürstadt: one small portion of a meadow, from which three wagonloads of hay can be harvested. I grant, hand over, and transfer [its] entirety, from the present day, out of my ownership into the ownership and authority of St Nazarius, to possess perpetually, and the rest ... It was done in the monastery of Lorsch, on the third Nones of August. Signs of Scoran, Meginward. Samuel subscribed [this charter].

This charter contains several references to the charter preceding it in the Lorsch cartulary. As you can see, it’s a straightforward grant of land by a certain Scoran to the abbey of Lorsch (which housed the relics of St Nazarius, a Roman martyr). Scoran is giving property not for his own benefit, but for that of a certain Meginward, who was apparently entrusted to Scoran by his father. Presumably Scoran was Meginward’s guardian, but we aren’t told why. This document can be precisely dated to 3 August 771, on account of the year given in its heading (the ‘King Charles’ here is Charlemagne) and the day being named (according to the Roman calendar) near the end. As above, you could find this charter by searching for (e.g.) charters dated according to the reign of Charlemagne, references to the River Weschnitz, property in Bürstadt, grants made to the monastery of Lorsch, donations made by individuals named Scoran, charters written by Samuel, and so forth.

In the next instalment, we’ll look at some slightly more complicated transactions involving leases of property.


Further reading

P. Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (Princeton, 2012).

W. Davies and P. Fouracre (eds), Property and Power in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1995).

W. Davies and P. Fouracre (eds), The Languages of Gift in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge, 2010).

I. Wood, ‘Entrusting Western Europe to the Church, 400-750’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 23 (2013), pp. 37-73.