Reading and Shaping Medieval Cartularies

We are delighted to have just published Dr Joanna Tucker’s book, which offers a new approach to our study of cartularies by integrating both physical and textual features to analyse how they grew – as if organically – over time.

‘Cartulary’ is not a term that most people are familiar with. More recognisable perhaps is the term ‘charter’: single-sheet documents, usually recording important transactions or agreements. Typically, cartularies might be defined as books that contain handwritten copies of charter texts from a particular medieval archive. (In Latin, the terms are related: carta gives us cartularium.) Both charters and cartularies proliferated across Europe in some form during the middle ages.

When I first encountered a medieval cartulary in the flesh, a ‘book of charter texts’ was precisely what I was expecting. Moreover, in the forefront of my mind was the knowledge that these manuscripts are what preserve so many of our charter texts today, the original collections of documents so often having been lost. What I discovered, as many others before me have discovered, is that what we call ‘cartularies’ can in fact be very multifarious manuscripts. Not only are they often not complete copies of all documents from an archive (usually the scribes were selective in what they copied), they might also contain various non-charter material, and they may be ‘physically’ complex in their structure and in their numerous scribes.

What can these richly complex manuscripts tell us about the purpose of medieval cartularies, and about the communities (especially the ecclesiastical communities) that created them? This, in a nutshell, is the subject of my book. In its essence, this question is not new. For a long time it has been appreciated that cartularies are not just repositories of charter texts and need to be understood as sources for their compilers. The order in which texts appear, for example, might provide an important insight into how the cartulary was being used: whether for administration of estates, commemoration of benefactors, resolving disputes, or to establish a history of the community. What has been less appreciated is the extent to which many cartularies might have been ‘active’ manuscripts – being read and extended across a number of generations.

I came to this realisation after studying two cartularies in great depth: one from Glasgow Cathedral, one from a (Tironensian) monastery in Fife called Lindores Abbey. Both institutions have cartularies that were begun in the thirteenth century. (There are other thirteenth-century Scottish cartularies, but for various reasons these are two of the most accessible for this kind of study.) What was most striking about these manuscripts was that each contained many small-scale additions of texts beyond the work of the ‘main scribe’. It was as if many individuals had been reading the cartulary and were triggered to add a text or texts they thought ought to be there. The manuscripts had therefore ‘grown’ in an organic and active way, not only textually but also physically with new booklets of parchment being added to accommodate new texts. As it happens, this phenomenon of multi-scribe additions was not limited to these two cartularies, or to cartularies from Scotland, or even to cartularies as a ‘genre’.

This feature of the cartularies brought into question all sorts of assumptions I had: about the binding status of the manuscripts (which likely existed unbound for much of their active lifetimes); about the authority exerted over the cartulary’s contents; about the relationship with the archive of original charters; and about the function of the cartulary itself within these communities. My book therefore offers a methodology for analysing these manuscripts and their scribal activity. Ultimately, it reveals that the scribes were actively reading and shaping their institutional cartularies, treating the manuscripts as a shared space. In order to achieve this perspective, it is necessary to look at the manuscripts not simply as the artefacts that they are today, but through the eyes of their medieval scribes and readers.


This guest post was written by Joanna Tucker, who gained her PhD from the University of Glasgow

Reading and Shaping Medieval Cartularies
by Joanna Tucker
9781783274789, Hardback, 22 colour illus., £48.75 or $84.50

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