Charters: Form and Structure

Charters are among the most important sources for the Middle Ages. They’re usually put into three groups: royal and imperial charters, papal charters, and private charters.

Charters record legal agreements, are constructed according to distinct formulas, and carry various signs of authentication. These features provide proof of their genuineness, as there are many forgeries, medieval and modern. The critical evaluation of charters developed as its own auxiliary science, called “diplomatics.”

Often only copies of charters survive, and not the originals, especially for the Early Middle Ages. These are important sources for answering many kinds of historical questions, not just legal and constitutional ones.

Seals give information about the validity of a charter and the people involved in a legal act. You can use them to draw conclusions about the significance or immediate circumstances of a document.

Charters with seals from the 15th, 16th, and 18th centuries from the Klosterarchiv Einsiedeln.

Klosterarchiv Einsiedeln, A.BI.33, A.YI.2, A.XI.9.

Charters are often contrasted with narrative sources because they are regarded as direct, physical leftovers of legal processes and not as reflexive descriptions of events. The study of late medieval and modern documents divides archival materials into charters (urkunden) and documents (akten). According to this division, charters secure legal acts, while documents record that legal acts happened.

In general, keep in mind that “a charter is an authenticated and binding piece of writing that was created using specific formulas and that documents an act under the law.” (Hans-Werner Goetz)

The content of a charter can be divided into three parts. In the introduction (protocol), the person in whose name the legal act is done (called the issuer) is named. The main part of the charter (the “text”) contains the legal act and any additional information, like a description of the circumstances or any conditions or clauses to ensure it is carried out. The conclusion (eschatocol) can include a dating formula and any means of authentication that contribute to the legal force of the charter, such as a monogram, seals, and witness lists.

By the later Middle Ages, charters expanded and diversified in function, form, and content. This was especially true for private charters, as more and more often bishops, abbots and abbesses, aristocrats, towns, and councils used documents to record agreements and rulings.

The earliest charter in the Klosterarchiv Einsiedeln, dated to Oct 27, 947, was issued by Otto I.
Klosterarchiv Einsiedeln, A.BI.1.

Diplomatics distinguishes different kinds of charters according to the role of the issuer. There are royal and imperial charters, papal charters  and the private charters, which covers all other kinds of issuers, including secular and religious rulers, monasteries, cities, and townspeople. The term “private charter” is a little misleading, because these documents can also have a public function.

Diplomatics in the 19th century distinguished between probative and dispositive documents, though the distinction is less tenable now. Probative documents (often “notitia”) record the carrying out of a legal act, while dispositive documents themselves (often a “carta”) create new legal acts. Under this schema, the carta is usually presented in a solemn form, includes punishments for violation of the document, and reports the names of witnesses. It can thus replace the testimony of witnesses in court. In contrast with the subjective carta, the notitia documents objectively the proceedings in the form of a report. It can also name witnesses and scribes, but neither its issuance or transfer has any symbolic meaning.

Even in the Middle Ages, the distinction between a charter and a writ (often the report of a decision by someone with authority with instruction to carry it out) was important. The key feature was the period of validity of the decree. A writ had a one-time, temporary legal use, while the charter represented a permanent legal arrangement.

Charters were created according to fixed rules. The three sections of a charter are illustrated here with the example of a royal charter:

A. Protocol
1. Charters often begin with a religious invocation (invocatio), often with a chrismon (C), highlighting the religious underpinning of law.
2. The intitulatio names the issuer of the charter often with a pious formula referring to the divine right of kings.
3. 3. The inscriptio names the recipient and is often paired with a greeting formula or salutatio.

B. The text forms the main part of the charter and contains the legal content of the document.
1. The arenga gives the general rationale for the king’s action in the document.
2. The promulgatio or notification indicates who should be made aware of the content of the document.
3. The narratio explains how the legal decision or agreement in the document came about.
4. The dispositio or dispositive clause states the particular legal act done in or recognized by the document.
5. The sanctio or penal clauses reinforce the document with specific punishments for violations.
6. The corroboratio or ratification lists the means of authentication and perhaps the names of witnesses.

C. Eschatocol
1. The subscriptio (pl. subscriptiones) here provides the royal monogram (with or without the completion stroke).
2. The recognitio or ruche consists of a mark by the notary or chancery, often in the form of a beehive.
3. The dating clause lists the place and time that the act was recorded; the legal act (actum) and the transmission of the act (datum) can often be separate in both time and geography.
4. The apprecatio closes the charter with a blessing.

Documents only rarely contain all of the potential components of a charter. Over time, the form and construction of a charter can change, and other types can appear. There are several periods in the development of the formal aspects of charters, which can often be associated with specific, important chanceries.

The title page for “Libertas Einsidlensis,” an edition of the charters of the monastery of Einsiedeln printed in 1650.
Klosterarchiv Einsiedeln, no shelfmark.

Charters distinguished as originals or copies based on their transmission. Charters are originals when they came into being at the command of or with the permission of the issuer and can be used as proof of a legal action for a recipient.

Beginning in the early and high Middle Ages, documents were transmitted primarily through books such as cartularies, Traditionsbücher (lat. Libri traditionum), or registers. The production of copies increased with the expansion of administrative and bureaucratic apparatuses, too. Since the introduction of printing, charters have also been transmitted in printed editions.

Lordship in the Middle Ages was often tied more strongly to people than institutions, and so the confirmation of legal acts by the heirs of an issuer was very important. Two kinds of confirmation are the vidimus (or inspeximus) and the transumpt (or copy). The vidimus is an authenticated copy that supersedes the original, while a transumpt transfers the content from one charter into a new one.

Frontispiece for Jean Mabillon’s De re diplomatica, 1681.

Diplomatics is the critical study of charters and is the starting point for all charter research. It is particularly concerned with distinguishing genuine charters from the many forgeries (“discrimen veri ac falsi”).

The term “diplomatics” can be traced back to the Benedictine Jean Mabillon (De re diplomatica, 1681). The discipline originally emerged as institution struggled to clarify their legal relations in the chaos of the Thirty Years’ War. In the 19th century, diplomatics came to be the most important auxiliary science for medieval history.

Traditional diplomatics primarily considers formal characteristics of documents and evidence for which chancery issued the charter. Modern diplomatics also includes analysis of the modes of authentication and the legal acts.

Is this “Federal Charter of 1291” really the founding charter of the Swiss Confederation?

There are many forgeries and distortions (for example through scraping) among the charters that come down to us from the Middle Ages. These are usually divided into material alterations (that affect the legal content) and formal alterations (for example, fake seals). Documents with formal alterations can still have correct legal content, say, if they’re an elaborate copy. Documents issued by the recipient can be considered genuine if they were made with the issuer’s knowledge and will.

During the process of textualization and with the growing importance of writing, it became important to have a written tradition. It also demanded close review of texts, leading to the production of forgeries.

The most important tools in diplomatics for the evaluation of documents is the description of external features (the writing material and substrate, the script, seals, marks, and dating) and internal features (the legal content, the rhetoric, the formulas, and the construction). These features can help one to correctly locate where and when a document was produced. It is usually possible to assign a document to a specific chancery, though the project is more difficult for private charters from the late Middle Ages, which lack a strict formal structure.

A gift to a monastery can be the result of a conflict if one party wants to remove the goods from the conflict zone. A presumable example of this is the charter of St. Johannes Pfrund of the monastery of Einsiedeln from the 14th century. Klosterarchiv Einsideln, A.AE.2.

Diplomatics is primarily considered with formal criteria for the evaluation of charters. They key questions are about the authenticity of the document and then about its relevance to the law.

These priorities can cause other functions of charters to be overlooked. Collecting charters or copying them into cartularies is also a key part of the documentary tradition. Aristocrats often defined their status by their possessions and the provenance of that property. As part of this process, charters often play a part in the enactment of lordship.

It should also be noted that surviving written records mainly relate to conflicts. Records that come down to us relate primarily to rights or property that have been controversial at some point. Trying to reconstruct the history of property is difficult because the written transmission is selective (Roger Sablonier).

New questions for source interpretation that extend the traditional tool box of formal criticism come from the observation that writing played a different role in communication in the past than it does today.