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About the book

The Reality behind Charter Diplomatic in Anglo-Norman Britain. Studies by Dauvit Broun, John Reuben Davies, Richard Sharpe and Alice Taylor, ed. Dauvit Broun (ISBN 978-0-85261-919-3)

The main outcome of the project is the database of all individuals mentioned in charters (very broadly defined) relating to people or events in Scotland before 1286. At one level this is simply a quarry of information. At a deeper level it also provides an opportunity to investigate charters as a source by making it possible for users to focus on particular beneficiaries, different types of document and specific features to see how this may have influenced the kind of information that is available, and how this changed during the period covered by the database. At an advanced level of research it is now recognised that there are dangers in adopting too literal approach to this evidence. The emergence of new types of document, adoption of certain features and appearance of new terms are all significant, but are best approached from an understanding of how this material was written, when and in what context—in short, the questions of who wrote it? when? and why? familiar to textual criticism. The intention is that the database should facilitate work on this dimension of charters, even though it is not first-and-foremost a charter database, but a database of individuals, their interrelationships and identities as seen through the lens of these documents.

The book is an attempt to go a step further again. Charters are a specialised kind of text with a distinctive structure which varies according to type. Approaches to this material derived from textual criticism are invaluable. For a full appreciation of charters as sources, however, it is necessary to study their formal features (or ‘diplomatic’). All charters in this period relating to the conveyance of property had an address at the beginning and a list of witnesses at the end (in the ‘testing clause’) sandwiching an account of what the charter was about. This middle section included the ‘disposition’, in which the transfer of property (or its renewal or confirmation) was noted, and the ‘holding clause’ recording the terms on which the property was to be held. Because these elements were routine and became formulaic their detail can too easily be regarded as rather arcane and be overlooked. The book focuses on a specific aspect or problem relating to each of these elements.

Three of the studies are investigations of puzzling features. In the address it was only an option, not a necessity, to refer to French, English, Scots, Welsh and so on. The choice of who to mention seems obvious in some instances, but perplexing in others. How can this be explained? Why mention them at all? In the disposition, the choice of words often seems uncontroversial—as when a donor ‘gives’ land—but there are a number of cases when it seems inappropriate. Is this simply poor drafting? Or is there another explanation? Poor drafting has also been suspected in the case of Scottish charters where land is said to be held in alms of the donor and his heirs, something which seems extremely odd in an English context, but is found more frequently in Scotland. Were Scottish scribes simply less careful or less well trained? Or, again, is there another explanation? In each study the investigation of these puzzles sheds fresh light on fundamental aspects of the history of this period: the use of different languages in public assemblies, and the eventual predominance of French; the obligations owed by landholders to the king of Scots, how this evolved, and what this reveals about the nature of public authority in the Scottish kingdom; and the relationship between lord and tenant, donor and beneficiary.

The fourth study also involves a puzzle. How could someone witness a charter if they were already dead? Its principal purpose, though, is to examine a point of fundamental importance for the database. There are many individuals in the period—including some who were politically prominent—who are known mainly or entirely through their appearance in witness lists. If we wish to know more about them we must study the transactions they witnessed and the company they kept. Serious doubts have been raised, however, about whether witnesses were necessarily present—an issue which has ramifications for a lot of research into medieval history, not just the database. The study is concerned not only to argue that witnesses were normally present, but to do so in a way that would account for the possibility that a witness could have been dead when the charter was written and sealed. The third study, on dispositive language, is also essential for the database. If the database is designed to reflect the way transactions were seen by those who committed them to writing, then it is vital to represent their choice of key words accurately. Historians, however, have inherited a framework of reference that obscures this by translating ‘give’ as ‘grant’, and ‘grant’ as ‘confirm’. The study aims to recover the contemporary perspective, and show why this is important, not least for our understanding of land law.

Overall, then, the intention of the book is to show that charter diplomatic is more than a dry technical counterpart to the rich information about social relationships, identity, law and politics that can be gained from reading charters. It can, as these studies demonstrate, lead to fresh insights about language and identity, land law and kingship, and a new perspective on the making of charters themselves. Although all of this sheds light particularly on these aspects of Scottish history, the studies also take a broader view. This can reveal that Scotland is different from the rest of Anglo-Norman Britain: the studies of addresses and common burdens both suggest that public authority in the twelfth century lacked the infrastructure found in England. The studies can also lead to conclusions that are valid in England and Wales (and even beyond). Above all, they are grounded in the fact that Scotland’s documentary culture in this period was derived from England, and was responsive to English developments. All serve to reinforce how a proper understanding of the material in the database requires not only an appreciation of diplomatic, but also an awareness of English documents. The other side of this coin is that it is hoped that, through the book in particular, the inclusion of Scotland—if not, indeed, a positive emphasis on it in two of the studies—can be recognised as important for a fuller understanding of issues that are of direct concern to English historians, and to medieval historians in general who have an interest in this period.