Charters and Cartularies

The eleventh and twelfth centuries witnessed, like earlier periods, continued charter composition as well as extensive charter copying. The majority of surviving single-sheet charters are from before the eleventh century, whereas the earliest known cartularies date from the early eleventh century. While cartulary production increased in the twelfth century, there are still fewer than thirty remaining from this period, the majority being from the thirteenth century onwards.1 Until the early thirteenth century, there are no secular cartularies, only ecclesiastical, although secular charters were being produced and copied throughout the Anglo-Saxon period and the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Many of the charters found in cartularies are copies of earlier single-sheet charters, the majority of which are now lost, and most charter texts have multiples copies found in several cartularies. Copying a charter into a cartulary is not only for organisational purposes, it also gives charters a permanence and importance that a single page does not have, and increases the chance of a text's survival as whole manuscripts are much more likely to survive.

The charters produced in the eleventh and twelfth centuries can be used alongside those which are copies of earlier texts to build a picture of the political, economical and physical landscape at that time, as well as giving insight into the progression and development of local spaces and post-Conquest attitudes towards their history.2

The majority of work on charters has been on their composition and on their contents as a resource for researching the political or economical state of a settlement, or for place-name and local geographical information. Where a charter is a copy, it is generally treated as a tool for accessing the supposed original text. As such, later copies of charters are used either as further support in establishing the original form of the text--since the later copy is a corrupted form--or to look at the possible reasons for their copying.

While these are valuable reasons for studying, there is a further aspect to these later copies that has been less explored, and which was suggested by Thorpe as early as 1865:

From time to time these Registers or Chartularies were recopied, and, for the most part, translated in recopying into the form of speech current at the later period; thus they offer to the philologist a mass of data upon which inquiries into the progress and changes of language can be more securely founded.3

Studying later copies in their own right opens up new motivations and circumstances. They are not pale imitations obscuring the earlier, corrupted text; they are part of a tradition and provide an insight into the circumstances and needs of the time. As well as providing evidence for the reasons for copying texts they are evidence of the methods of copying texts. The survival of multiple copies of the same text, or of a cartulary which consists a body of work which can be localised to an institution or geographical region (whether or not the language has been updated), enables us to gain insight into how charters were copied, what influenced the scribes, how these charters related to the land holdings and how the land owners viewed their property centuries after the bestowal. There is also the potential to explore charter and cartulary production in the context of other genres of text being produced and copied at the same time, and to look for similarities and differences in the way various genres are copied, perhaps with reference to the geographical and institutional evidence provided by charters. Lowe's work in this area shows what can be achieved by careful analysis of this material, as well as highlighting the problems inherent in charter study.4

Kate Wiles, Leeds


1. G. R. C. Davis, Medieval Cartularies of Great Britain: A Short Catalogue (London: Longmans Green, 1958) p. xi. The preface of this gives an overview of the various types of cartularies and their production and distribution.

2. See, for example, Francesca Tinti, 'From Episcopal Conception to Monastic Compilation: Hemming's Cartulary in Context', Early Medieval Europe, 2.3 (2002), 233-61, or Martin Brett, 'Forgery at Rochester', in Förschungen im Mittelalter: Internationaler Kongress der Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Hanover: Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 1988), vol. IV, pp. 397-412.

3. Benjamin Thorpe, Diplomatarium Anglicum Ævi Saxonici: A Collection of English Charters, from the Reign of King Æthelberht of Kent, A.D. DC.V. to that of William the Conqueror, with a Translation of the Anglo-Saxon by Benjamin Thorpe (London: Macmillan, 1865) p. xxvi.

4. Lowe, Kathryn, 'Linguistic Geography, Demography, and Monastic Community: Scribal Language at Bury St Edmunds', in Interfaces between Language and Culture in Medieval England: A Festschrift for Matti Kilpiö, ed. by A. Hall, and others, The Northern World, 48 (Leiden: Brill, 2010) pp. 147-78 and 'Post-Conquest Bilingual Memoranda from Bury St Edmunds', Review of English Studies 59 (2008), 52-66.



The Electronic Sawyer, enables the user to browse charters by date of composition, and manuscripts by date of production.

Langscape, contains transcriptions of the English landscape information. Offers multiple manuscript linguistic variations.