Legal documents, or charters, represent one of the main typologies of surviving medieval texts, and in recent decades they have been at the centre of a very rewarding area of research exploring the role of literacy and the impact of the written word on different sectors of society. Social and cultural historians, taking their lead from anthropologists, have tested the validity of modern definitions of ‘literacy' when applied to the early medieval world. In particular, they have been reacting to a traditional assumption about the limited role of the written word that considered charters to be relevant only to the clerical minority who wrote them. In fact, it has now been shown that laypeople were not required to be able to read the text of a Latin charter on their own in order to participate in documentary culture, as charters could be read out to them. Moreover, these documents were elements of rituals and legal proceedings within which communication was achieved through speech and a variety of actions and gestures. Notions of ‘pragmatic literacy' and textual communities accommodating different levels of literacy have thus become customary in investigations of how deeply charters could reach into society. These lines of research have also been influenced by the field of historical linguistics, or, in Roger Wright's coinage, ‘sociophilology' (A Sociophilological Study of Late Latin [2002]). Wright's work in particular has drawn attention to the important act of reading charters aloud, as in the Romance area this very action often bridged the written Latin of the charter and the proto-Romance pronunciation which would have been typical in the locality. However, in non-Romance speaking areas, the gulf between the written and spoken words was obviously much bigger and, while this has often been observed, the implications of this linguistic divide remain largely neglected.

In this respect, Anglo-Saxon England represents a very special and significant case which has only occasionally appeared in the abovementioned literature. This is remarkable for a number of reasons. First of all, it should be noted that many of the studies presenting a maximalist view of literacy (i.e. one which stresses the centrality of the written word in early medieval societies) originated as a response to the ground-breaking study by Michael Clanchy (From Memory to Written Record [1979; 3rd ed. 2013]), which tended to downplay the role of written records in the early medieval period, claiming that it was only in the twelfth century that literate modes of ruling and administration became normal. Clanchy's book focuses on England whereas most of those who have insisted on the importance of the written word in early medieval societies have studied the Carolingian world. Secondly, the documentary culture of Anglo-Saxon England relied on two different languages: Latin and, increasingly over time, Old English. This written bilingualism, however, has normally been taken for granted and its profound implications for the study of the dynamics of documentary practice, record-keeping, legal transactions, disputes, public ceremonies, relations between Church and laity, and ultimately society at large have not yet been exploited. Moreover, as the two languages often appear in the same document, creating numerous cases of what linguists call ‘code-switching', it seems even more remarkable that this material has not been examined to shed new light on the interactions between writing and orality, or to examine how deeply such documents reached into society. One of the main aims of this project is therefore to begin to fill this major gap by investigating the respective roles of the two languages used and the relationship between them.

Because of the light they cast on Anglo-Saxon society, government, administration, law, land tenure, landscape and more, many different aspects of charters have been studied and several major debates have arisen. However, important questions concerning the use of both Latin and Old English in these records remain unanswered, or even unasked. One of the main questions concerns the appearance in the ninth century of vernacular ‘boundary clauses' – descriptions of the precise boundaries of transacted lands – in charters which were otherwise written entirely in Latin. Such vernacular clauses became a regular feature of later Anglo-Saxon diplomas and over a thousand of them survive. As the section of the text directly relating to the landscape, the fact that the boundary clause was written in Old English is normally explained by pointing out that it was the one part of the document for which comprehension was crucial and thus needed to be recorded in a language everyone spoke and understood. Furthermore, Old English also appears in other parts of the charter text; its distribution and use vary between different typologies of charters. For example, private charters such as wills came to be written entirely in Old English, whereas other documents such as episcopal leases and lay transactions often employed code-switching.

However, Anglo-Saxon England was not the only area of Western Europe in which a non-Romance language was spoken, thus prompting further questions about why the same did not occur, for instance, in charters produced in the eastern regions of the Frankish Empire. Here, vernacular boundary descriptions seem to have been very rare indeed. Since the path-breaking study of Rosamond McKitterick (The Carolingians and the Written Word [1989]), which demonstrated that the written word was important at all levels of Frankish society, questions regarding the extent of lay literacy have formed a crucial component of research on Carolingian documentary culture. However, the striking linguistic contrast between England and eastern Francia has never been addressed. Scholars have tended to stress that the latter was part of a much wider polity which also included a vast Romance-speaking area, and that the linguistic reforms of the Carolingians sought to establish a universal Latin language, mastery of which was important for all members of the elite, irrespective of where they came from. In other words, the linguistic features of eastern Frankish charters have normally been interpreted as a result of the unifying sense of belonging to the Carolingian Empire, which considered itself the ideological successor of the Roman Empire. However, the rare but nevertheless significant incursions of Old High German into charters produced in the eastern regions have scarcely been analysed and they may in fact reveal much more than is usually assumed about written and oral communication at levels of society which have tended to be less visible. These early occurrences of Old High German have been noted by philologists interested in reconstructing the earliest attestations of written German, but much more can be achieved by investigating them within the comparative framework of the social history of writing, which is what this project sets out to do.

The project has three core aims:

  1. to better understand the relationship between the written and the spoken word in early medieval societies through an analysis of language usage in charters produced in non-Romance speaking areas;
  2. to study the production of Anglo-Saxon charters as a profoundly important case of interplay between Latin and the vernacular, which needs to be fully understood instead of being treated as an exception to the rule of early medieval documentary language usage;
  3. to promote a comparative approach between England and the eastern, Germanic-speaking regions of the Carolingian Empire in order to investigate the apparently very different choices made in the latter to bridge the gulf between the spoken language of the population and the written language of legal documents.

Preliminary bibliography

  • Adams, J.N., Bilingualism and the Latin Language (Cambridge, 2003).
  • Banniard, M., Viva voce: communication écrite et communication orale du IVe au IXe siècle en Occident latin (Paris, 1992).
  • Bauer, R., Die ältesten Grenzbeschreibungen in Bayern und ihre Aussagen fur Namenkunde und Geschichte (Munich, 1988).
  • Beck, W., ‘Die Würzburger Markbeschreibungen: Aspekte einer Neubewertung', Sprachwissenschaft 38.2 (2013), 211-26.
  • Bergmann, R., ‘Pragmatische Voraussetzungen althochdeutscher Texte: Die Grenzbeschreibungen', Jahrbuch für Germanistische Sprachgeschichte 3 (2012), 57-74.
  • Brown, W., Costambeys, M., Innes, M., and Kosto, A. (eds), Documentary Culture and the Laity in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge, 2013).
  • Clanchy, M.T., From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307, 3rd edn (Oxford, 2013).
  • Geary, P., ‘Land, language and memory in Europe, 700-1100', Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th ser., 9 (1999), 169-84.
  • Heidecker, K. (ed.), Charters and the Use of the Written Word in Medieval Society (Turnhout, 2000).
  • Innes, M., ‘Memory, orality and literacy in an early medieval society', Past & Present 158 (1998), 3-36.
  • Lowe, K.A., ‘The development of the Anglo-Saxon boundary clause', Nomina 21 (1998), 63-100.
  • Lowe, K.A., ‘Lay literacy in Anglo-Saxon England and the development of the chirograph', in P. Pulsiano and E.M. Treharne (eds), Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts and their Heritage (Aldershot, 1998), 161-204.
  • McKitterick, R., The Carolingians and the Written Word (Cambridge, 1989).
  • McKitterick, R. (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge, 1990).
  • Mersiowsky, M., Die Urkunde in der Karolingerzeit. Originale, Urkundenpraxis und politische Kommunikation, MGH Schriften 60, 2 vols. (Wiesbaden, 2015).
  • Mostert, M. and Barnwell, P. (eds), Medieval Legal Process: Physical, Spoken and Written Performance in the Middle Ages (Turnhout, 2011).
  • Schendl, H., ‘Beyond boundaries: code-switching in the leases of Oswald of Worcester', in H. Schendl and L. Wright (eds), Code-switching in Early English (Berlin, 2011), 47-94.
  • Stock, B., The Implications of Literacy: Written Language and Models of Interpretation in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Princeton, 1983).
  • Tyler, E.M. (ed.), Conceptualizing Multilingualism in England, c.800-c.1250 (Turnhout, 2011).
  • Wright, R., A Sociophilological Study of Late Latin (Turnhout, 2002).