Early Medieval Charters: A Guide For Students

This guide, compiled from earlier blog entries, is intended to introduce some basic aspects of both 'The Making of Charlemagne’s Europe' and the age of Charlemagne itself. It shows what kinds of material users can find in the database, and it aims to provide an introduction to some important aspects of early medieval life in order to help users understand this material.

1. What is a charter?
2. Property grants
3. Leases and precarial grants
4. Sales and exchanges
5. Confirmations
6. Disputes
7. Further reading

1. What is a charter?

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, and 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 in our database record grants of property by individuals – peasant landholders, aristocrats, royals, and clerics themselves – to religious institutions, very often for the sake of the granter's 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) usually 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 collections of charters have been examined in smaller regional studies, they have never been explored or catalogued as a single corpus spanning the whole of Carolingian Europe.

Of roughly 4500 charters from the reign of Charlemagne, about 180 of these are royal diplomas from the king himself, while virtually all the rest are records of transactions kept by churches 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 were 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 a flavour of the kinds of documents being catalogued, here’s a typical example. This charter comes from the episcopal church 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. This example – no. 61 in the collection, according to modern convention – dates from the year 773. As this copy was written just half a century after the fact, we have what is very likely a copy of the original charter, so this cartulary copy probably represents a faithful reproduction of the original document.

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

Freising no. 61 (15 August 773)

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 profit for eternity from the transitory life and to give to Him in this life, He who is able to give back in perpetuity 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 wishes 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 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 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 clerical 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.

These are the most basic aspects of a charter. Of course, not all documents are so straightforward, but a remarkable number conform to this pattern. Now, we shall explore the most common types of transactions in more detail.

2. Property grants

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 can check this for yourself by browsing 'institutions' under the agent type facet and 'grant' under the transaction/event type facet (see here for more information on agent roles and transaction types). 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 (but, which, in practice, was controlled by bishops). 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 not inconsiderable 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 families’ souls in heaven. Moreover, there were 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 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 (see below). 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.

The above has referred often to ‘property’, but it should be stressed that ‘property’ was not necessarily just ‘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 can 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 has been extracted and input for users to find. Note that the database does not provide the full text or a translation of the charter, but the references to these will be listed (and, soon, 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:

Wissembourg no. 135 (c.782-790)

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].

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 (a iurnalis is a measure of land that required one day to plough) and an unfree woman for the sake of his own salvation. You could find this transaction in the database by browsing for, among other things, charters naming 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 a charter from the cartulary of the monastery of Lorsch in Hessen, Germany:

Lorsch no. 169 (3 August 771)

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, who was handed over to me by his father Heribert, 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 of the 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 simple 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.

3. Leases and precarial grants

Now, let us look at some conditional property grants, which were fairly widespread by the eighth century. In the Merovingian period (c.450-750), new forms of leases and tenancy agreements were gradually introduced to facilitate the granting of land on easy terms and to enable donors of lesser means to give their property to the Church without impoverishing themselves. These leases were rooted in Roman law, which had long maintained a distinction between 'owning' or holding the ultimate rights over property (dominium) versus physically and temporarily controlling it (possessio). In early medieval Europe, it came to be that a granter could donate his property to a church or monastery and ask to retain the usufruct of that property (i.e. the right to use, derive profit from and inhabit that land) for a certain period of time, usually the remainder of his life. In Francia, this form of tenure came to be known as precaria (from the Latin verb precari, ‘to beg’ or ‘to pray’; so called because the granter entreated the recipient to let him keep certain rights). After the leaseback period ended (normally after the death of the granter), all rights over the land would in theory revert to the owning institution, although in practice many precarial lands were leased back to the original granter’s successors (indeed, many donors stipulated in charters that both they and their children should retain the usufruct of the granted property for the duration of their lives). Precarial grants are so frequent in Carolingian charters that you’ll be able to search or browse specifically for these transactions.

A very similar practice of tenure emerged known as landholding in benefice. The Latin beneficium means a ‘favour’ or ‘good deed’, and the appearance of the word in charters initially expressed the fact that a grant of usufruct had been made as a goodwill gesture by the recipient for the original donor. It seems to be the case that land granted in benefice came to be done so in return for a specific service rendered; perhaps, if granted by a king or magnate, as a reward for military service. If an individual decided to join the clergy, he might grant his property to the institution he had entered and then immediately receive the use of it back in benefice. By the ninth century, both precaria and beneficium could be referred to in charters as nouns denoting a granted property itself (i.e. ‘a precarial estate’ or ‘a benefice’), and in practice the two terms seem to have come to mean essentially the same kind of tenure, although beneficium emphasised the sense of favour attached to the grant. To investigate the prevalence of transactions invoking this kind of language, you can search the database for Latin terms such as precaria and beneficium.

Many charters containing grants of land as precaria or beneficium also stipulate that a census (a rent or tax) should be paid by tenants and holders to the owning party. However, there is debate about whether this payment constituted a real source of income for landowners or was rather a token amount intended merely to recognise an owner’s ultimate rights of dominium over a property. This is a question users could explore for themselves by searching for the appearance of the term census and looking at the kinds of documents in which it appears, the types of payments stipulated, or perhaps the geographic areas in which such charters were issued.

It should be stressed that grants of land to the Church were not at all uniform: such arrangements were very fluid and assumed a variety of shapes. A plethora of terms and conditions could be applied to property transfers. Land was often only promised to a church, not to be transferred at all until after the death of a granter, or perhaps after the death of a granter and his wife, or after the death of both spouses and their children, and so forth. A donor could specify that a transfer was only to be completed in the event that he died childless. Alternatively, he might retain the usufruct of a granted estate as a precaria or beneficium for a child or spouse in the event of his death. A church might require that a granter inhabit an estate in order to ensure that he maintained it, or that a tenant had a duty to ‘improve’ a property. An institution could assert that a holder was only allowed to cultivate certain fields of a particular property, or that he was only permitted to take certain specified income from an estate. Grants and leases were all technically revocable if the various stipulations attached to them were not met.

Let’s look at two examples of grants with leases, both from the monastery of St Gall (St Gallen) in Switzerland. Like many churches in Charlemagne's Europe, St Gall let the majority of its property to individuals in precarial arrangements. 

St Gall no. 54 (16 October 769):

In the name of God. I, Matzo, give and transfer to the monastery of St Gall, where his holy body rests. This is what I give: whatever I seem to have in the villa called Waldhausen, on the condition that by the goodwill (beneficium) of these monks, I may receive those goods [back] afterwards and I may pay a census thence, that is one saiga annually, in whichever form I am able. These are the witnesses, who are present and confirm [this charter]. Signed Matzo, who ordered this charter of transfer to be made. Signed Fito. signed Boazman. signed Ehso. signed Witpert. signed Appo. signed Sindram. signed Hadupert. signed Maur. And I, Ato, deacon, wrote this charter of transfer, having been asked by Matzo, on the 17th of the Kalends of November, in the second year of the reign of Carloman, king of the Franks.

This charter is a simple donation and leaseback arrangement made by a certain Matzo with the abbey of St Gall. Matzo gives everything he owns in the villa (a term with a wide range of meanings, but usually ‘estate’ or ‘village’) of Waldhausen, and St Gall agrees to return the property to him in benefice in exchange for an annual census payment. The census here is described as one saiga, a gold coin of a certain weight and by extension a unit of measure, payable ‘in whichever form I am able’, presumably meaning that St Gall would accept goods of value equal to a saiga. Note also that this charter is dated according to the reign of Carloman, Charlemagne’s younger brother, who ruled a share of the Frankish realm until his premature death in 771 (at which point Charlemagne became the sole king of the Franks).

St Gall no. 55 (21 October 769):

In the name of God. It pleases us – I, John, bishop and abbot of the monastery of St Gall, with our brothers, the monks of this monastery – that we ought to grant out again those goods which Chrodhoch and his wife Raginswinda transferred to us in the villa called Baldinga, in the pagus (district) called Adalhartespara, as a precaria to them by this precarial charter. And this is what they gave to us in the villa Baldinga and its marca (i.e. within its confines): whatever we seem to have there, excluding their servant Waldilana. And this is the census which they ought to pay every year: 20 barrels of beer and 1 maldrum (a unit of measure) of bread and a piglet worth one saiga. And if they should bring forth a son, let him do the same, and if not after the death of both [Chrodhoch and Raginswinda] let those goods return to the monastery without any hindrance, and may they come to no person by exchange or sale or donation, but may the monastery itself hold them firmly and stably in perpetuity. And if one of them (i.e. Chrodhoch or Raginswinda) should survive the other, let the census be increased; that is, to 30 barrels of beer and 1 maldrum of bread and a piglet worth 4 denarii. And if anyone should want to break this charter, let him pay 2 ounces of gold and 4 pounds of silver to the fisc (treasury). Signed Woffi witness, signed Aato witness, signed Intto witness, Hugiperto witness, signed Hariperto witness, signed Walto witness, signed Liuto, witness, signed Maorinzan, witness, signed Amulfrido witness, signed Wachar witness. Enacted in the same monastery on the 12th of the Kalends of November, in the second year of King Carloman ruling. I, Ato, deacon, wrote and subscribed [this], having been asked by the brothers.

This charter is similar to the previous one, although it contains several other terms and conditions for the grant. A certain Chrodhoch and his wife Raginswinda give their property in Baldinga to St Gall, and Abbot John agrees to return it to them as a precaria in exchange for an annual census payment of beer, bread and a piglet. The granters stipulate that if they have a son, this arrangement should similarly be maintained for him (likely for the duration of his life, though this is not stated). The charter also includes a curious clause about the census increasing after the death of one of the spouses. It's impossible to say exactly why this was included; it might be the case that St Gall thought it should take more following the death of either the husband or wife because the surviving granter would require less for his/her livelihood and have more to spare. The document is vague in some respects: it doesn't tell us, for instance, which census rate the hypothetical son would pay. There is also a penalty clause (called a secular sanction in the database) detailing the fine to be paid by anyone who contravenes the charter’s provisions (probably to St Gall, but ‘fisc’ can also refer to the royal treasury).

Some historians estimate that perhaps a third of all the land in Francia was owned by the Church by the time of Charlemagne. There can be no doubt that religious institutions were major landowners in this period, but it is important to underline the fact that a great deal of land remained in the hands of the monarchy and the laity. An overwhelming majority of the thousands of legal documents from Charlemagne’s reign are ecclesiastical charters, with the notable exception of about 180 diplomas (royal charters) issued by Charlemagne himself. Yet even diplomas normally survive precisely because churches and monasteries kept copies of them. While charters from religious houses dominate the documentary record, recent research has shown that lay people, too, frequently possessed their own documents, although they are often only attested indirectly through references to them in ecclesiastical charters or in formularies (collections of document models, or formulae, which scribes could use to draw up charters). Lay documents seldom survive because families lacked the institutional longevity of churches and monasteries: an early medieval charter is much more likely to survive if housed in the archive of a religious institution which remained intact for a thousand years than in a private archive which was liable to be lost when a lay family died out. It would be wrong to conclude from the documents in our database that land transactions always involved churches, or that churches were the only parties interested in producing and keeping written proofs of their rights and activities. It is nevertheless largely from ecclesiastical evidence that historians must try and reconstruct many important aspects of early medieval society.

4. Sales and exchanges

Sales and exchanges represent smaller but still significant proportions of the charters from Charlemagne’s Europe (so far, sales: about 12%; exchanges: roughly 5%). Bishops and abbots did not simply solicit donations from the laity; many sought to enhance their patrimonies through the active buying and trading of estates. A bishop might exchange a property for another belonging to a different church or a layman for the purposes of estate management. Landowners often possessed properties scattered across enormous geographical areas which required having trusted associates on the ground to look after them and make sure that they were not neglected or alienated. It could therefore be prudent to swap properties with other landowners to ease the burden of ensuring that one’s estates were able to be maintained efficiently. Furthermore, families and individuals often sought to build social and spiritual relationships with particular religious institutions by gaining property which physically bordered the lands of a certain church or monastery (and by extension becoming the 'neighbour' of a particular saint). Some charters portray exchanges or sales as gifts: gift-giving was an important aspect of early medieval social relations, and it encapsulated notions of favour, reciprocity and friendship. In addition, religious houses frequently bought property to increase not only their material revenues, but also their ‘spiritual capital’ – that is, the prestige of their patron saint(s), which could in turn facilitate further patronage and transfers of property in honour of those saints’ cults.

It's also worth noting that, as in the case of property grants, 'property' could also include people: we have many charters which record the buying, selling and exchanging of unfree persons.

Here’s a charter from Lucca, in Tuscany, Italy, concerning a sale by a layman, Sanitulus, of two parts of a vineyard to a priest called Rachiprand:

ChLA 36:1047 (16 July 774)

In the name of God. Our lord Charles, king of the Franks and Lombards, reigning in the first year of his reign since he captured Lombardy, on the 17th of the Kalends of August, in the 12th indiction. I, Sanitulus, son of the late Cicchus, from the place Brancoli, on the present day, by this charter, agree to sell and intend to deliver to you, Rachiprand, the priest of the church of St Mary, situated in Sesto, two portions of my vineyard, which I hold in the place Metiano: one portion has one end in the vineyard of the church of St Mary and the church of St Fridianus, the other end in the thicket of St Mary, and both sides in the vineyard of that church of St Mary; the other portion has both ends and both sides in the vineyard of the above-written church of St Mary. Those aforesaid two portions of the vineyard, just as they have been delimited, I intend to sell to you in [their] entirety, and I have received from you, for those already said portions of the vineyard, the predetermined price of five gold solidi, so they pass from my dominion and I deliver [them] to be in your power. Whence I, the above Sanitulus, together with my heirs, undertake to you, Rachiprand the priest, and your successors, that if we should attempt or seek to take back those aforesaid portions of the vineyard from you [or] we should be unable to defend it for you from every man, I pledge, with my heirs, to compensate you and your successors [with] those already said portions of the vineyard twofold, in a comparable place in valuation with what or what kind they should be then. And I asked Gheipert the cleric to write [this]. Done in Lucca. Sign of the hand of Sanitulus, who asked that this charter be made. Sign of the hand of Pertuald the cleric, son of the late Ferduald the cleric, witness. I, Tassipert the priest, asked by Sanitulus, subscribed as a witness. I, Raculus the priest, asked by Sanitulus, subscribed as a witness. Gheipert the cleric, after delivery, completed and gave [this]. I, Austripert the priest, subscribed.

The agreement in this charter is fairly straightforward. The priest Rachiprand appears to be acting here in a personal capacity (rather than on behalf of the church he served). Note the penalty clause asserting that if Sanitulus (or any of his successors) goes against the outlined provisions, then Rachiprand should keep the aforesaid vineyard as well as other property deemed to be of equal value to the vineyard (i.e. equal to five solidi, gold coins).

Here is a charter of exchange from the cartulary of Mondsee, in Upper Austria, recording a deal struck by the archbishop of Salzburg and the abbot of Mondsee:

Mondsee no. 7 (11 April 799)

Each man is seen to diminish nothing from his [property, when] each receives something in exchange.Therefore it was agreed between the venerable man Arn, archbishop of the monastery of Salzburg, where the lord and saint Rupert, confessor of Christ, rests in body, and the venerable man Hunric, abbot of the monastery of Mondsee, which was built in honour of St Michael, that where a suitable and advantageous thing might take place concerning their things, they ought to take advantage [of it] for themselves, which they did in this way: therefore Arn, the venerable bishop of Salzburg, gave for the purpose of exchange with the same aforesaid Abbot Hunric to the patrimony of St Michael in the place called Strasswalchen, [specifically] the church there in its entirety, which had been devoted to the service of St Peter and St Rupert. And similarly, in another place called Strass, near the same place (i.e. Strasswalchen), he gave 170 iugera of land, just as he was said to be able to hold by law, so that it might serve that very place (i.e. St Michael’s at Mondsee) by perpetual right. And against this, the aforesaid Abbot Hunric was seen to give back in exchange to the aforesaid Archbishop Arn, to the service of St Peter and St Rupert, [property] in the place called Halsbach, with everything pertaining to it in integrity, which the venerable man Count Wasagrim had been seen to have given to the aforesaid church of St Michael at Mondsee. And, in an equal manner, [Hunric gave] in another place called Langkampfen, which the religious men Tato and Rupert, sons of William, had given to the same place (i.e. St Michael’s at Mondsee). Therefore they asked for two written charters of exchange to be made for themselves for the confirmation of this single order, so that, in the same way each received the exchanged things from the other, let each of them have, hold and possess for the use of his control of his church, or [if] he wishes to do anything henceforth, let him have unimpeded power in everything. And if either of them or their successors might wish to alter anything concerning these exchanges, he should lose that same thing which he received in the exchange, and what he demands back will not be granted, but let the present exchanges remain firm between them and their successors for all eternity. Done in both the public monastery of Salzburg and at Mondsee, on the 3rd of the Ides of April, in the 7th indiction, in the 32nd year of the reign of our lord the most glorious king Charles. There were many witnesses for both parts.

Arn's title here is somewhat oddly given as 'archbishop of the monastery of Salzburg' because at this time the monastery of St Peter in Salzburg was under the direct control of the archbishop (so Arn was also abbot of St Peter's). Note that the document is explicit about the agreement being mutually beneficial to Arn and Hunric (though exactly why it's a good deal for both parties is not stated). Like the sale above, it offers a similar penalty clause which states that if either of the parties (or their successors) breaks the agreement or challenges it, he will lose what he initially received in the exchange and be left with nothing (i.e. the other party will possess the properties on both sides of the deal).

In the database, you can browse for sales and exchanges just as you would for any other transaction type: for instance, you could look up all sales of unfree individuals, all exchanges involving female parties, all purchases by monasteries of land in Bavaria, all transactions involving vineyards, or all sales found in the cartulary of Wissembourg.

5. Confirmations

About 12% of our charters record confirmations. A charter of confirmation is quite simply an endorsement or renewal of a previous grant or an existing possession, agreement or other right. Many royal diplomas confirm the rights and possessions of religious houses, as these were keenly sought by bishops and abbots when an opportunity to meet the king arose. Confirmations could equally be sought by institutions and lay people in order to reiterate or clarify a previous donation or privilege. These charters often had the effect of reaffirming or renewing a social, political, economic or spiritual relationship between two parties. A confirmation might also be granted if an original document had been lost or destroyed.

Here is a charter of confirmation from Freising, Bavaria, which renews an earlier grant made to the episcopal church:

Freising no. 58 (9 July 773)

In the name of the highest and only-begotten son of the living God, Jesus Christ. I, Cunibert, now wish to clarify a donation and transfer, which just recently I made to [the church of] the mother of God, Mary, at Freising in the villa called Buch am Erlbach by an earlier letter, of these servants and dependants, lest anyone try to entice or carry off anybody great or small from these things on account of my neglect. In the first place, Deotuni and his wife Sindhilt with their two sons Ratolf and Rihpald; then Tagapald with his wife named Kisa and two sons Erpfolt and Ihho; after them Oadalpald with his wife Rihhaid and his sister Uuinguhaid and their offspring Ellanrat; then Uuolfheri with all those things he possesses; and also Uuolfdregi with his unfree Adsonia; after these Ummo with his wife Cundpiriga and their two sons Popo and Petto; then Liuprat with his wife Cunnia with the children Uualtrata and Roodrato; then Sindicho with his wife Perhtnia and daughter Roodlinde; after these Adalrat with his wife Uuolfuuihae and child Frouuimot; after these Tuti with his wife Emgunde and little boy Poso; in total numbering 33. These things were written in the presence of Bishop Arbeo. These witnesses [confirmed] the things I was seen to possess in that villa: Parceol. Wicrat. Popo. Hato. Arpeo. Paatto. Aaron. Reginbert. Done in the villa of Buch on the 7th of the Ides of July in the 26th year of the reign of Lord Duke Tassilo. I, Horskeo, wrote this on orders from the mouths of Arbeo and Cunibert.

Here, Cunibert clarifies an earlier grant he made to Freising by naming all the dependants who are attached to a villa he previously donated in Buch am Erlbach. The original grant also survives: it is no. 15 in the Freising cartulary, but it was given in the year 760 and thus falls outside the chronological parameters of our database (768-814). However, because the initial donation is referred to in this document, you would still be able to find it as a secondary transaction which is ‘also mentioned’ in the charter (as opposed to the confirmation, which appears under the heading ‘main business’ as it is the document's primary purpose). Cunibert states that he wants to list the tenants associated with this land in case any of them are taken away (or presumably leave of their own accord) since he is unable to keep an eye on the property himself. The scribe mentions that the document was ordered by both Cunibert and Bishop Arbeo, and it is probably safe to assume that the bishop was equally keen to have a written document which confirmed the church of Freising’s rights over these individuals.

6. Disputes

Of the charters we have entered so far, roughly 5% contain disputes. Early medieval dispute procedure and settlement have been extensively studied in recent decades as they offer important evidence for understanding how local communities regulated themselves and sought to resolve potentially destabilising conflicts. Such studies have often emphasised the importance medieval society ascribed to the written word, for documentary proof was frequently invoked in dispute proceedings: a charter might record that other charters were shown in court to back up a claim. Charters of dispute thus attest to a sophisticated legal culture which belies a common conception that early medieval law was arbitrary and irrational, or that this was a society which simply turned to trial by ordeal to resolve disputes (this did sometimes occur, but it was often a last resort).

Charters were issued to record the outcomes of quarrels over rights of ownership or possession, physical land boundaries, inheritances and more (such a charter was often known as a placitum). Since one of the chief roles of a medieval king was to dispense justice within his kingdom, diplomas often recount disputes that were heard at the royal court. These tended to involve more important nobles and institutions. Some ecclesiastical charters were issued specifically to record dispute outcomes, although we tend only to have records of disputes in which churches and monasteries were successful in pursuing their claims – which is perhaps unsurprising, given the patterns of documentary survival mentioned above. Grants and other charters sometimes refer to earlier disputes between lay people or between lay people and institutions, and where this occurs you’ll see it in our database under the ‘also mentioned’ heading.

Here's a charter recording a dispute from the monastery of Farfa in central Italy:

Farfa no. 2:97 (CDL 4a:28; December 776)

In the name of the Lord God, our saviour, Jesus Christ. When we, Hildebrand, glorious duke of the duchy of Spoleto, had been staying in the palace at Spoleto, and Bishop Adeodatus, Bishop Gualtarius of Fermo, Bishop Vadpert of Valva, Bishop Auderis of Ascoli Piceno, Rimo the gastald (a Lombard official) of Rieti, Count Lupo of Fermo, Maiorianus the gastald of Forcone, Count Lupo of Ascoli Piceno, Anscausus the gastald of Valva, Count Halo, Gumpertus, Nordo and Campo the gastalds, and Citherius our judges were present with us, then the venerable Bishop Sinuald of the city of Rieti came into our presence, together with the priests of that city, that is, Halo the deputy, John, Acheris, Lupo, Candidus, Septiminus the priests, [because they were] having a dispute with the venerable man Probatus, abbot of the monastery of the mother of God, St Mary (i.e. Farfa), and with his monks.

There Bishop Sinuald and his priests put forward that: ‘The farmhouse which is called Balberiano formerly belonged to Liutpert, and his son named Lupo offered that farmhouse on the day of his death to our church of the blessed Hyacinth; but now that farmhouse has been seized by that Probatus in the monastery of St Mary; for what, we do not know.’

But conversely, Abbot Probatus with his monks responded: ‘That farmhouse of which you speak in no way pertains to you, nor could Lupo give it to your church of blessed Hyacinth; but Liutpert, the father of that Lupo, seized that farmhouse for himself from the public, that is, from the enclosure of Germaniciana, where he had been an agent for many years. But we have a precept of the lord King Aistulf in [our] hands, just as that king in his time conceded that enclosure of Germaniciana with its men, farmhouses and appurtenances to our monastery of St Mary; and when in the past year, in the presence of that lord Duke Hildebrand, the elected [bishop] Agio, with John the deputy and his priests, was arguing with us over that case in your presence, Lord Hildebrand, you can remember how you made a judgement between us, that the side of the church of Rieti – that is, that Agio with his priests – would have to show how that farmhouse had been donated to the same Liutpert by the palace, and [how] they held that farmhouse. And in that order, that Agio, with his priests, gave surety that if they were not prepared in the agreement, either with their witnesses who knew how it had been donated to him by the palace, or to show a precept, they would lose those cases to us.’

And we, the aforesaid duke, remember everything, just as the abbot said, and when they had not been prepared through three agreements, that elected [bishop Agio], with his priests, informed us that he neither had witnesses nor a precept to show.

Repeatedly indeed, and now once again, Bishop Sinuald responded, with Halo the deputy and with the above-written priests: ‘Although the elected [bishop] Agio could not establish [the claim], as you say, we can thus establish how for a long time Liutpert had held that farmhouse by gift, and had taken possession of it through the palace, and just as we have now repeatedly put the agreed surety in your presence in Rieti, we have witnesses who know how Liutpert held that farmhouse, donated through the palace, for we do not have a precept of it, but we establish [this], just as for a long time it was possessed by him; and in those days, those who were gastalds had the power of donating the farmhouse by their gift without the duke.’

Then those witnesses, Sintarius the gastald, brother of that Sinuald, and Count Lupo of Fermo, were brought into our presence, as above, and when they had been examined by us [as to] what they knew of it, they said to us: ‘God is [our] witness that we know nothing in any way of this case.’

But after these things, when they had not been able to find any witnesses, then the above-written priests declared that they did not have any witnesses. Then we, the glorious duke, inquired of the above-written bishop and our gastalds already named if such had been the custom before those times, that the judges of that duchy had license, without the duke, to donate the entire farmhouse to any man. And they unanimously said that: ‘No, except in moderation, a small [plot of] land or a little house without an heir; but half or an entire farmhouse, not without the palace.’

When all these above-written things had been investigated in such a way by us, the above-written duke, bishops, and gastalds, it appeared just to all of us, that, because the side of Bishop Sinuald and the priests of his above-written city of Rieti had had neither a precept nor witnesses to show, the side of the monastery of St Mary and the abbot, as that enclosure of Germaniciana with all its appurtenances was included by the concession of that king and in his precept, which we have had reread immediately before us, should hold and possess the afore-named farmhouse of Balberiano, just as it pertains to the same enclosure in [its] entirety; and the side of Bishop Sinuald and his priests should restrain themselves from this case. And it was finished.

Whence, to prevent contention by everyone, I, Auduin the notary, have written a notice of this judgment, by the order of the above-written power and at the word of Dagarinus the gastald, in the month of December, in the fifteenth indiction. I, in the name of God, Hildebrand, glorious duke, have subscribed this judgment by my hand.

As you can see, the charter is fairly lengthy, and this is not atypical of dispute charters (particularly those from the monastery of Farfa). This is a dispute between the bishop of Rieti and the abbot of Farfa over some land in ‘Balberiano’, an unidentified place. Hildebrand, the duke of Spoleto, presides, and hears each side’s case. The abbot of Farfa produces a document demonstrating his monastery’s rights to a related property, and insists that the bishop’s claim is invalid because the bishop had acquired Balberiano from someone who had himself illegally usurped it from Farfa. Ultimately the bishop of Rieti is unable to provide witnesses who can uphold his church’s claim to the property, and the duke rules in Farfa’s favour.

In the database, the dispute will be broken down into the various alleged grants or possessions and the outcomes. So, the 'main business' of this charter is a dispute involving all the mentioned litigants, and the outcome is that Farfa retains its possession of Balberiano. The different claims made by the disputants (e.g. Farfa's claim that King Aistulf granted this land to them, and Rieti's claim that Lupo granted it to them) are recorded as alleged grants or possessions and will appear under the 'also mentioned' heading.

7. 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. Brown and P. Górecki (eds), Conflict in Medieval Europe: Changing Perspectives on Society and Culture (Aldershot, 2003).

W. Brown, M. Costambeys, M. Innes and A. Kosto (eds), Documentary Culture and the Laity in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge, 2013).

W. Davies and P. Fouracre (eds), The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge, 1986).

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. Fees and P. Depreux (eds), Tauschgeschäft und Tauschurkunde vom 8. bis zum 12. Jahrhundert. / L’acte d’echange, du VIIIe au XIIe siècle (Cologne, 2013) – contains chapters in French, German and English.

K. Heidecker (ed.), Charters and the Use of the Written Word in Medieval Society (Turnhout, 2000).

R. McKitterick, The Carolingians and the Written Word (Cambridge, 1989).

A. Rio, Legal Practice and the Written Word in the Early Middle Ages: Frankish Formulae, c. 500-1000 (Cambridge, 2009).

B. Rosenwein, To Be the Neighbor of St Peter: The Social Meaning of Cluny’s Property, 909-1049 (Ithaca, NY, 1989).

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

S. Wood, The Proprietary Church in the Medieval West (Oxford, 2006).