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  • Medieval Legal Process: Physical, Spoken and Written Performance in the Middle Ages ed. by Marco Mostert and P. S. Barnwell
  • Sybil M. Jack
Mostert, Marco and P. S. Barnwell, eds, Medieval Legal Process: Physical, Spoken and Written Performance in the Middle Ages (Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy, 22), Turnhout, Brepols, 2011; hardback; pp. ix, 299; 5 b/w illustrations, 5 b/w tables; R.R.P. €85.00; ISBN 9782503541747.

Merely to write something down is not to give the product any standing or authenticity in the eyes of the people or the law. How written material came to have its unique position in society is a complex subject and one too frequently neglected. These articles, from different standpoints, are directed towards looking at written material not just for the direct information it provides but also as a phenomenon important in the more distinctly oral social structures of the past. They are for the most part written by the acknowledged authorities in each area. Nothing has made me more acutely aware of my language deficiencies as this volume of essays. As the rare appearance in English of such studies, usually written in European languages, the collection underlines the loss, to historical debate in areas of English mono-lingualism, of the professional analysis of the contribution that diplomatic and codicology can make to our understanding of past, and present, cultures.

Those first introduced to the perils of uncritical acceptance of written material by consideration of 'forged' Anglo-Saxon charters were mainly concerned with establishing the purpose of a forgery but largely failed to put the production of a charter into its contemporary context - what gave a document its authenticity anyway? Recent European scholarship has shown that far more than this can be learned from a document's formulary and the manner in which it was given its undeniable authority. This book contains fifteen articles of different length and weight. Most compelling - indeed a piece that should be compulsory study for all students - is that of Hagen Keller. Its translation into English provides a magisterial interpretation of the circumstances surrounding the issue of a charter and the ritual of its authentication.

The articles cover a wide spread of areas, mainly in Northern Europe from Scotland to Poland and Hungary, and investigate topics as critical as the nature of literacy. Since Rosamund McKitterick's studies of the use of literacy - the ability to read and write Latin - in the Frankish kingdoms, scholarly attention has extended to the ways in which people who could not read and write nevertheless participated in practices that involved written material. Georges Declercq's article considers performance in legal matters and the role of touching as a form of acceptance and authentication thus shedding light into the difficult area of the lost communication of an oral [End Page 293] society. Michael H. Gelting examines what Danish charters can reveal about the interplay between oral and literate culture when the written word was subordinate to oral testimony. It should cause those of us who see the development of English common law as the dominant element in the growth of jurisprudence to rethink our approach. The earliest written laws raise the question addressed by Stephan Brink: did they incorporate any of the earlier oral laws and if so how can those relics be identified?

As Anna Adamska shows in her beguilingly entitled 'Founding a monastery over dinner' the legal complications between oral requirements, secular and canon law can be extremely confusing particularly on the borders of several different states and territories but is also revealing of the different attitudes of secular and religious authorities to the written record in a period of social and economic transition. In countries like Hungary where written records are absent, Janos M. Bak shows how the gestures and forms associated with legal practices can in some part be recovered. What becomes clear is that beneath many local differences and specificities there are common features that provided a European-wide matrix. What all the studies show is the importance of the public participation in the formal presentation and acceptance of matters relating to property and obedience in the high Middle Ages.

This collection with its...


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