What is a charter?

Posted: Aug. 7, 2014, 12:01 p.m. by Edward Roberts

This is the first in a series of blog posts intended to introduce some basic aspects of both 'The Making of Charlemagne’s Europe' and the age of Charlemagne itself. Here we'll explain what we’re doing and what users will be able to do with our database. We'll also offer primers on some important facets of early medieval life in order to help users understand the material they find in the database.

Charters are among the most important sources for historians seeking to understand the Middle Ages. A charter (from the Latin carta) is a fairly short document containing some kind of record: perhaps a sale, exchange, lease, or donation of property; a bestowal of an office or privilege; a deed of ownership; a notice of the outcome of a dispute; an agreement of some kind; or an inventory of possessions. Charters perform many different functions, and their prevalence at all levels of medieval society attests to the importance this society ascribed to written documentation. They were frequently issued by kings (royal charters are often referred to as diplomas), for whom these documents served such purposes as building alliances with powerful nobles, patronising religious institutions, or settling disruptive quarrels between supporters. Churches and monasteries issued and kept charters to record the enormous tracts of land they controlled across Western Europe. The majority of the documents going into our database record grants of property by individuals – peasant landholders, aristocrats, royals, and clerics themselves – to religious institutions for the sake of their own salvation. We also know that lay persons possessed their own documents, although scarcely any of these have survived owing to the fact that institutions endure longer than families and are thus more likely to preserve medieval documents.

As a body of evidence for the study of Charlemagne's Europe, charters furnish a wealth of data on topics such as the nature of social and political relationships between individuals, or between individuals and religious houses; the economic organisation of the empire; the customs and practices which constituted the fabric of Frankish society; and much else besides. As witnesses to the ‘nuts and bolts’ of medieval Europe, charters offer a window onto aspects of society which contemporary narrative writers (chroniclers, annalists, biographers) take as given. Charters also sometimes provide snapshots of the lives of people from the lower orders, something we seldom get from narrative historians whose gazes tend to follow the movements of the king and his entourage. But while most charters have been examined individually and in smaller regional studies, they have never been explored or catalogued as a single corpus spanning the whole of Carolingian Europe.

Of roughly 5000 charters from the reign of Charlemagne, about 180 of these are royal diplomas from the king himself, while virtually all of the rest come from individual abbeys and monasteries. Most of these documents, however, do not survive as original parchments. The vast majority of our charters from religious institutions are found in cartularies, books in which charters have been copied down at a later date for purposes of organisation and preservation. Some of these cartularies began to be compiled during Charlemagne’s reign or shortly after his death in 814, but others were not created until the twelfth or thirteenth centuries, some 400 years later. These later copies present their own problems, especially with regard to textual authenticity, although historians have developed sophisticated methods that allow them to detect forged or interpolated documents.

To give you a flavour of the kinds of documents we’re cataloguing, here’s a typical example. This charter comes from the town of Freising, now a suburb of Munich in Bavaria. The bishopric of Freising was established in 739, towards the end of a successful effort to Christianise Bavaria between the sixth and early eighth centuries. Charters obtained and issued by the first five bishops of Freising were copied into a cartulary composed there between 824 and 835. Our example – no. 61 in the collection, according to modern convention – dates from the year 773. As our copy was written just half a century after the fact, we thus have what is very likely a copy of the original charter, and in this case we would consider the cartulary copy to represent a faithful reproduction of the original document.

You can view the document as it survives in the ninth-century cartulary here (it begins right at the bottom of the folio), and you can view the edited Latin text here. This is what the document says:

In the name of God, I have been contemplating and considering my soul and the future life, so that I might deserve to receive great favour before the pious Lord. I, Raholf, had been able to gain my very own property as a gift from the divine giver, which my father left to me as an inheritance. It is pleasing to give to Him in this life, He who is able to give back in perpetuity and to profit for eternity from the transitory life, and from whom patrimonies are granted and all the changeable things are distributed. Therefore, as we already expressed in writing above, I was able to bring together whatever I acquired in and whatever I shall add to the place called Jesenwang. I hand over and transfer the buildings, enclosures, unfree persons, livestock, territory, meadows, pastures, and whatever I seem to possess there, to the church of the blessed and always pure Virgin Mary, founded at the episcopal house of Freising, and to Christ’s confessor Corbinian. And not only do I give these resources, but I also subject my own body to the service of the church. If anyone tries to go against this charter of donation or wish to break it, let there be no doubt that he will receive the anger of the divine judge, and when he incurs the wrath of Mary, the mother of God, let him remain condemned under the bonds of excommunication in the displeasure of those saints whose relics are praised there. Let this donation nevertheless remain firm and secure with the subjoined stipulation. Enacted in the episcopal city of Freising in the 26th year of the reign of the lord and most illustrious duke Tassilo on the 18th of the kalends of September (15 August) in the presence of Bishop Arbeo and all his clerics. These are the names of the witnesses who were pulled by their ears, as the custom of the Bavarians requires: in the first place, Bishop Arbeo, into whose hands this thing was given. Wulfbert, Magolf, Horskeo priests. Arn, Leudfrid deacons. Chuno. Sullo. Petto. Hitto. Radwald. Arbeo. Wulfleoz. Wicrat and many others. I, Sundarhar, wrote this from the mouth of Bishop Arbeo, subscribed it, and confirmed the witnesses.

So what we have here is a record of a donation (a traditio – literally a ‘handing-over’) made by a certain Raholf to the church of St Mary (i.e. the episcopal church) in Freising. Raholf – about whom we know nothing beyond this document – is giving land he inherited in the village of Jesenwang as well as himself because, as he tells us at the beginning, he has been contemplating his salvation and wants to be looked upon favourably by God once he departs his earthly life (such a preamble is known as an arenga). Quite what Raholf means when he says he is giving over his own body ‘to the service of the church’ is not totally clear: he is quite possibly joining the clergy (indeed, the author of the 824x835 Freising cartulary reckoned that Raholf was a priest in his rubric (title) for the charter, but the document itself doesn’t specify that), or he could just be a small landholder seeking protection from a large institution such as Freising.

The grant is being made in honour of St Corbinian, the patron saint of Freising whose relics were located in the cathedral. Raholf notes that he is giving over ‘the buildings, enclosures, unfree persons, livestock, territory, meadows, pastures, and whatever I seem to possess’ in Jesenwang. Such a list of what is being donated is commonly known as an appurtenance clause, and they are very common in charters of donation. Note that the ‘unfree persons’ (mancipia) are also considered property. This charter also contains spiritual sanctions: divine punishments to be meted out to anybody who doesn’t respect the document’s provisions (‘If anyone tries to go against this charter…’).

Towards the end of the text, we find three other standard charter features. First, a clause often known as a datatio which tells us when and where the document was enacted. This transaction was carried out and the charter written up in Freising itself, and we are told the exact date it took place. The year is given according to the reign of Tassilo III, duke of Bavaria (748–788), because Bavaria was subject only to Frankish overlordship during this period, and it was not until Charlemagne’s deposition of Tassilo in 788 that the Franks assumed direct rule over the Bavarians. Second, we find the witness list. Like modern legal documents, medieval charters needed to be verified and signed by a certain number of witnesses. These tended to be prominent members of the church and the local elite: this charter names the bishop, three priests, and two deacons of Freising; the rest are probably laymen of a certain standing. The reference to the witnesses being ‘pulled by their ears’ is a characteristic feature of charters from Freising and other parts of Bavaria: this seems to have been a ritual in which witnesses quite literally tugged on their ears (or perhaps had them tugged by somebody else) to signify their assent to a transaction. Finally, the document is subscribed by the notary (scribe) who actually wrote the charter. Sundarhar was a fairly prominent Freising scribe during this time, and we have numerous other charters written and authenticated by him. As he tells us, he wrote this out ‘from the mouth of Bishop Arbeo’; that is, the bishop dictated it to him.

So those are the most basic aspects of a charter. Of course, not all documents are so straightforward, and we regularly encounter problems of all shapes and sizes, some examples of which this blog will explore in due course. In following instalments, we’ll address some of the issues raised here in more detail: why did people give so much to churches? Why are things like witness lists and dating clauses useful for historians? Why did churches produce cartularies? In what ways were written documents useful to individuals and institutions?