The Cambridge Library Collection has recently reissued nineteenth-century editions of a dozen important medieval French monastic cartularies. ‘But hang on, what are cartularies?’ a non-medievalist may ask. Simply put, they are manuscripts, some slender, some enormous, containing records of property transactions, donations and transfers of rights, rents and revenues. Some, such as that of the Abbey of Saint-Bertin at St-Omer, document events dating back to the early middle ages. Begun by the monk Folquin around 962, this collection of charters, arranged chronologically, extends from the seventh century until 1178 and represents one of the earliest and most important resources for Carolingian monastic life and the era of Benedictine reform. Another, that of the Abbey of Saint-Victor in Marseilles, covers the seventh to the fourteenth centuries and is particularly interesting for information relating to the period prior to 1000, and because the abbey’s far-flung possessions included property in Syria and Spain. Others relate to later foundations, such as Savigny, which is documented from its foundation in the twelfth century.
Until the nineteenth century, all these manuscripts sat pretty much unnoticed on library shelves, in safe deposit boxes or in vaults, and it would have been difficult to locate them and laborious in the extreme to consult them, had anybody thought of doing so. However, during the great resurgence of interest in the medieval period that took place during the nineteenth century, a great many such manuscripts were transcribed and published. French scholars were among the leaders in this enterprise, and tended to focus on documents relating to the powerful abbeys of medieval France, most of which had been disbanded during the Napoleonic period. These energetic antiquaries were often patriotically motivated, none more so than the Breton scholars who devoted their labours to the enormous cartulary of Redon (published in too large a format, alas, to be feasible for inclusion in our first phase of reissues), or the smaller cartulary of Landévennec (which is included).
Some of the editors did not have access to the original medieval manuscripts. For instance the cartulary of Sauxillanges was published in 1864 from a seventeenth-century manuscript copy of a medieval original that had since disappeared. A similar situation arose in the case of the cartulary of Saint-Vincent de Macon, also published in 1864. It spans six centuries and is full of information about the topography, customs, people, and the rise of the feudal system in the region, and it is very lucky for historians that it too had been transcribed before the original was destroyed during religious rioting.
What all of these records have in common is that they are a gold mine of (mostly) factual information for historians, not only of the church but of the medieval period more generally. Being legal documents, they give precise dates, names, acreages and monetary values rather than the vaguer details that can be gleaned from literary works. But in addition, once the reader has waded through the obligatory pious formulae and scriptural quotations, they reveal a great deal about the workings of the legal system, and about social structures, political power and economic realities. Charters tell us the different legal ways land could be held and disposed of, and by which classes of society (they can give evidence of independent small-scale landowners down to the peasant level, as well as kings, bishops and nobles, not to mention what rights women had). They show which landowners had a power base where, who was getting royal favours, who was ‘in’ or ‘out’ at court and who held what official post (witness lists to land grants tell us all this kind of thing).
There is of course a danger that some of the documents in these manuscripts were forgeries all along. One of the advantages of having a lot of charters easily accessible and comparable in print is that researchers can learn to distinguish the genuine ones from medieval fakes!
Many other cartularies, particularly from France, Germany and England, were edited during the nineteenth century, and the Cambridge Library Collection hopes to select further volumes for reissue in due course. Although the introductory matter and explanatory notes in these older editions inevitably don’t meet modern scholarly standards, the texts themselves are generally very accurate thanks to the almost obsessive labours of their editors. This means that the books are still well worth consulting while the current generation of historians works on perfecting new editions that take account of the very latest developments in analysis and interpretation.