The Languages of Anglo-Saxon Charters (LASC) database aims to reflect the complex linguistic character of documentary culture in Anglo-Saxon England. The history of writing in this region is remarkably more bilingual than in most other areas of early medieval western Europe. There, both Latin and the Anglo-Saxon vernacular, Old English, were used extensively and for a wide variety of purposes, and this is no truer than for the legal and administrative documentation that survives from the seventh to eleventh centuries, the period from which ‘charters’ were produced and used. This has often been noted by researchers, yet the dynamics between the two languages within the charter corpus have received relatively little attention. Moreover, the description of the languages of individual charters within the principal catalogue for the study of these documents, P. H. Sawyer’s Anglo-Saxon Charters: an Annotated List and Bibliography, Royal Historical Society Guides and Handbooks 8 (London, 1968), revised version at http://www.esawyer.org.uk (‘Esawyer’), lacks the level of detail required to appreciate fully how linguistically rich and varied this material is. It is in response to this situation that we have created the LASC database, which we hope will be a powerful tool for historians, literary scholars and linguists alike.

What is an Anglo-Saxon charter?

Canterbury, D. & C., Chart. Ant. M 363 (Sawyer 90). Reproduced courtesy of the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury

In the study of Anglo-Saxon England, the word ‘charter’ is used to denote a wide variety of written records. The Sawyer catalogue includes, for instance, wills, leases, marriage agreements, and accounts of disputes over land ownership. In essence, ‘charter’ is somewhat of a catch-all term to denote the wide range of ways in which the written word was used for administrative and legal purposes in early medieval England. The majority of surviving examples are ‘royal diplomas’, that is records of permanent grants of land or associated privileges that were issued on behalf of kings, yet these are supplemented by a smaller but more diverse range of other materials issued on behalf of royals, ecclesiastics and laypeople. The earliest surviving examples are from the 670s and are relatively homogenous in terms of their language and functions. From this date forth, further examples can be found purportedly from every decade up to the Norman Conquest in 1066, and one can witness a general trend towards greater diversity of forms and functions for written records as time goes by, particularly from the beginning of the ninth century onwards.

The LASC database works within the confines established by the Sawyer catalogue in deciding what is a ‘charter’. In other words, we have only considered material that has been assigned a Sawyer number. Given the heterogeneous nature of the corpus of Anglo-Saxon documentation, one should stress here that strict typologies would not account for all the surviving written records and thus there must be some flexibility regarding what constitutes a charter. This accounts for the fact that there is no canonical definition within Anglo-Saxon studies of a ‘charter’, and it also accounts for the somewhat more inclusive attitudes that have seen the addition of several texts to the Sawyer catalogue since its initial publication. Certain bodies of potentially pertinent material, however, remain outside the scope of the Sawyer catalogue and, indeed, of this database. Perhaps most notably, there is relative inconsistency in the inclusion of epistolary correspondences; the Sawyer catalogue tends to include such texts only if they are predominantly in Old English or if they survive in a single-sheet form. One should also note that while there are many documents with legal implications in the corpus, prescriptive law-codes are not considered by scholars to be ‘charter’. This is worth stressing, since examples of royal law-codes survive from remarkably early on – from the early seventh century – and were, famously, written in the vernacular.

How do charters survive?

Most surviving charters were originally drawn up on single sheets of vellum, on occasion in multiple copies and increasingly, from the ninth century onwards, in chirographic form (i.e. two or more copies produced from the same piece of vellum and cut apart over an authenticating mark, often the word ‘chirographum’). Relatively few Anglo-Saxon charters are extant in a single-sheet form. Instead, most have survived thanks to their later copying, many by later medieval cartularists and some by early modern antiquarians. Furthermore, it is by and large only those charters that were preserved in ecclesiastical archives that have survived to this day; there are no extant examples that are known to have been part of Anglo-Saxon royal or lay collections. This archival dimension is an important feature of any given document and it needs to be borne in mind when assessing its qualities: each archive has its own distinct history, which has wholly influenced not only how material survives, but also what survives. For instance, a remarkable number of original single sheets survive from Christ Church, Canterbury, largely due to the intense antiquarian interest that this material piqued in the seventeenth century. The richness of the Worcester archive, in comparison, can be attributed to the cartularisation programmes that took place there in the eleventh century.

Canterbury, D. & C., Chart. Ant. B 1 (Sawyer 939). Reproduced courtesy of the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury

The question of survival raises, in turn, the crucial issue of authenticity. Many charters exist as proof of landownership and, as such, there was considerable value in forging such documents. A considerable number of the extant examples are indeed fabrications, drawn up either in the Anglo-Saxon period or in subsequent centuries. Other examples, meanwhile, may well have authentic bases but have been subject to later tampering, with material being either added, removed or altered to suit the new realities of their copyists. Due to such issues of transmission and authenticity, charters that survive in what is deemed to be as authentic, original single sheets are often privileged in scholarly discussions, not least because they provide physical evidence for understanding their production and use that other charters cannot provide. Thus, within this database users can refine their searches to exclude material not surviving in single-sheet form or material that is likely to be spurious; in the case of the latter, we have sought as much as possible to reflect the majority view of printed scholarly discussions.

What can the languages of charters tell us?

In contrast to most surviving documents from other parts of early medieval western Europe, the corpus of Anglo-Saxon charters contains a wealth of vernacular and Latin material. The two languages are often found side-by-side within a single record, sometimes even within a single sentence. This material therefore holds considerable potential for exploring a number of historical, literary and linguistic issues. First, there is the question of language choice itself: why did the author of a charter choose to employ either Latin or Old English at any given moment? The answer may be a response to one or more of a large number of possible factors. It may, for instance, reflect multiple stages of production; the function of the document or of a specific passage; concerns regarding literacy; or perhaps the social standing of an associated individual. By examining language choice within these texts, one can open up new perspectives on how documents were produced and used, as well as how the two languages were conceptualised within a shared literary context. Thus, this material offers important evidence for considering the administrative, political, social and performative values of language itself across a period of some four hundred years.

Canterbury, D. & C., Chart. Ant. C 1280 (Sawyer 204). Reproduced courtesy of the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury

The corpus of Anglo-Saxon charters is also of fundamental importance for developments in the English language. To date, this material has been exploited particularly successfully in onomastic studies, with particular attention given to the evidence of vernacular boundary clauses. Relatively few linguistic studies, however, have gone beyond the bounds of this material. Furthermore, there remain key themes – not least code-switching and dialectology – that await to be explored fully within the charter corpus, which, in turn, would allow for deeper understanding of how English developed as a written language.

It is hoped that the LASC database will be a valuable guide for researchers engaged with these and other historical and linguistic issues. The database permits users to examine the language dynamics not only across the corpus – and thus across time and space – but also within individual documents. One can compare, for example, the languages of witness lists with the languages of the main body of text; and one could contrast the languages of bounds with the languages of endorsements. This treatment of language also extends to the examination of when and where we find subjects in charters whose personal names have been latinised (for more on the functionality of the database, please see the Methodology tab). This database therefore offers overviews of the shape and size of the corpus and of its linguistic character, while it provides the opportunity to contextualise the distinctive language features of a given record. Searches quickly reveal a wealth of variation across the corpus, attesting to both chronological developments and regionally (and perhaps even institutionally) distinct modes of practice. As such, the database allows users to garner a sense of hitherto unrecognized historical developments. The results generated by this resource, moreover, point the way to the more detailed analysis that is required to understand fully the nature of a particular charter and its standing within a wider administrative and diplomatic context.