- Strategies of Writing: Studies on Text and Trust in the Middle Ages
The thirteenth volume from the very productive Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy group addresses a theme that has been of central interest to scholars in the field since Michael Clanchy's foundational work From Memory to Written Record – namely the concept of trust in writing. Clanchy's originality rested in part on seeing writing and literacy, not as natural tools or outcomes of progress, but as technologies and attitudes which were new and unfamiliar, and which fulfilled functions (for example, legal record) already achievable by other means in medieval times. He argued, therefore, that trust in writing had to be earned and sustained for the 'literate mentality' to develop. From Memory to Written Record was grounded in a strictly English historical context – that is, in the (roughly) 150 years following the Norman Conquest – but its questions and approaches have influenced scholars of many periods and places ever since. The indebtedness of the present volume to Clanchy is acknowledged in the Preface, and the book is dedicated to him.
There are over twenty chapters, each engaging with the questions of what kind of trust was invested in the written word, and how such trust was established and maintained in medieval European contexts from the Viking Age to fifteenth-century Bruges. In the interests of space, this review will focus on a brief selection of themes that take Clanchy's ideas further, or challenge their blanket application across time and space. [End Page 248]
The issue of trust in writing is central to arguments about the use of written evidence in medieval law. Can charters, for example, be seen as 'certificates' to be produced in court, a trustworthy legal 'trump card'? Alternate theories make charters a material by-product of a human theatre of trust, comprising ceremonies and witnesses, a sort of relic of the transaction, which merely happens to be written. Karl Heidecker's brief but significant contribution to this volume shows how both of these 'charters' can be present and interact. He examines two related charters, showing how the second was produced to settle a dispute over the details of the first, which was found on inspection by the donors to contain important interpolations. The witnesses to the second charter were then added to the witness list in the first, as if to seal the entire transaction retrospectively with their approval. A symbolic twig was also attached to the parchment, suggesting the performance of a ritual exchange of some kind. Trust was not entrusted to the written word per se, but to a particular group of written words, embedded in a certain context. However, the production of the second charter itself shows that donors understood the role of charters as 'truth', and took steps to rectify errors.
Marco Mostert approaches the issue of trust by examining 'forgery', and how it was understood in medieval times. He is not unique in concluding that 'forgery' as defined by modern diplomatists is an anachronism: clearly in some ways it was considered legitimate to produce a document that 'should have' existed, Heidecker's case study notwithstanding. The analogy Mostert draws between medieval society and the anthropology of remote illiterate tribes, through which he appears to contend that oral societies have no concept of 'untruth', is not, in my opinion, particularly convincing or constructive.
However, a very real contribution is his sophisticated conceptualization of the important observation that the 'literate world' extended beyond those whose hands and eyes were directly involved in producing and reproducing words. The way in which he unwinds the literate/illiterate dichotomy into a dynamic range of 'registers' – literate, semi-literate, semi-illiterate and illiterate, between which individuals move across time and between different activities – has real potential to facilitate understanding medieval modes of literacy and communication generally.
Placing trust in writing at the centre of literacy studies has...