Teaching charters: interaction and reconstruction in the seminar room

I have a confession to make: somewhen between the First Crusade special subject I took as an undergraduate [1] and teaching my own undergrad special, I fell out of love with charters. I’m not sure I was ever really in love with them, but at some stage they fell, like Domesday Book, into that category of documents labelled ‘hard to teach due to perceived dullness’. Ever since I’ve been puzzling over how to make teaching charters a bit more interactive than just reading and distinguishing their sections.

The chances are if you are reading this blog, you know what a charter is [2], but just in case, it is a medieval document recording an action, like a grant of land, sale, gift, or renunciation of a claim (quitclaim), that has already happened and that someone thought it would be a good idea to write it down, and often, to find a person in authority to confirm that it had happened. For example:

I, William, duke of the Normans and king of the English, make it known to all faithful men present and future that I grant the land of Swamp Castle to the monks of St Benedict to hold in perpetuity. This grant was made in the hall of Swamp Castle and was witnessed by …

Norman charters of the eleventh century often have an invocation (‘In the name of the Trinity) and sometimes an explanation for the action (an arenga) that can give valuable (and often very interesting) background information or tie the grant to a wider historical context. Some of the earlier eleventh-century documents also include wonderful anathema clauses whereby those who challenge the terms of the grant will be subject to damnation and also a hefty fine (Normans didn’t mess about). Finally, they have a list of witnesses or might or might not have been present when the grant was made, but who nonetheless were deemed important enough to perhaps ‘remember’ it. Charters survive as single sheets of parchment or copied into cartularies where they might well be edited to bare essentials.

Charters, or charter-like sections, also survive in narrative sources like chronicles and this is where I had a bit of an Epiphany combined with seeing junior school children busy making their own charters in Canterbury Cathedral Archives.[3] The great twelfth-century chronicler Orderic Vitalis was tasked with writing a history of his monastery of Saint-Evroult in order that the novices might learn about the community’s past and profit from it. As part of that history, Orderic recorded many of the grants made to the community at various stages, but notably from the late eleventh to the mid-twelfth centuries.[4] These grants are not charters in full, so there was scope here for a very interesting exercise in reconstruction with my Normans students as willing guinea pigs.[5]

This exercise took place in a session devoted to the role of the aristocracy and service in medieval Normandy, particularly as seen through the eyes of Orderic with some additional material in the shape of charters to consider witness lists. Once we’d talked about Orderic and his reasons for writing, examined what constituted service in eleventh-century Normandy and examined the structure of some charters, I gave the students some extracts from book V of the Ecclesiastical History and asked them to pick a section and, using the translated charters as a guide, reconstruct the missing document.[6]

The approaches taken were interesting. One group methodically worked their way through a small extract, disentangled the personal relationships, worked out that they had a grant that masked a possible sale and wrote a pretty straightforward charter. The other group decided they wanted to get in an anathema clause, a dig at the Flemish for killing William fitzOsbern and have the charter witnessed by lots of important dignitaries. Both produced good attempts in that the groups talked about appropriate forms, titles, who might have been there and a little bit about the possible background to the grant.

Unfortunately there wasn’t time to go further with this, but in future sessions there is certainly scope for role-playing the negotiations leading to the actions recorded in the charters and then the act/grant itself. The creation of these documents in class of course raises lots of questions about authenticity and forgery, something for which medieval monastic communities could be notorious. In some respects what the students were doing was no different from the scribes of, for example, Christ Church Cathedral Priory trying to recreate documents to support claims they thought they had to land, primacy over York or other privileges. This leads on to further conversations about archive creation and the preservation of documents and how we, particularly as medievalists, deal with the question of fragmentation in our evidence.

I also think that this exercise would make a very nifty piece of assessment and it may yet appear in some form next year.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to get students to recreate charters in class, but the exericse went well enough for me to think there is more mileage in this exercise. I would welcome thoughts on similar exercises readers might have used in their own teaching or suggestions for how to refine the current plan.

[1] Taught by the late lamented Prof. Jonathan Riley-Smith and featuring a large number of charters.

[2] The link takes you to Dr Paul Haywards graduate seminar on charters at Lancaster.

[3] Complete with plasticine seals and pipe-cleaner seal cords.

[4] If you want to know more about Orderic, see the wonderful edited collection by Daniel Roach, Charles Rozier, Giles Gasper and Elisabeth van Houts published by Boydell. Thomas Roche’s paper on charters in that volume is illuminating.

[5] They put a brave face on it because they are actually a very good group.

[6] Edited and translated by Marjorie Chibnall.

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Author: lvhicks

Medievalist specialising in the Normans

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