Medieval Archivists as Authors: Social Memory and Archival Memory
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Back in the early 1970s, David Hammack, a historian of New York City, told me that the most important person in the New York City Archives was an individual whose only qualiacation was his membership in the Teamsters Union. The reason that this was such an important qualiacation, Professor Hammack explained, was that the archive was seriously underfunded and underhoused . The most daunting task the staff faced each year was to get all of the materials that they had accumulated the previous year but could not possibly preserve to the city dump in time to make room for the next year’s tidal wave of paper. The teamster/truck driver/archivist was the key to this activity. Archivists do not generally like to dwell on their role as destroyers of the past. Normally, when talking about archives, one concentrates on preservation, not on destruction . However the New York City archivist-teamster illustrates an essential component in the relationship of the present to the past: the necessity of forgetting. Friedrich Nietzsche arst called attention to the importance of forgetting, at least equal to remembering, speaking of “that malleable power of a person, a people, a culture , . . . to grow in new directions, to restructure and reconstitute what is past and foreign, to heal wounds, to replace what has been lost, and to recast those molds which have been broken.”1 Archivists are primary agents in this process, of necessity making choices about what is to be hauled to the landall , what is to be preserved, and, perhaps as importantly, how it is to be preserved. We historians tend to prefer to ignore the fundamental role of archivists and enjoy the delusion that our clever research can bring us into some direct contact with the past. In fact, the work of historians is often constructed so as to make the archives invisible : to present the illusion of bringing the present reader into the past to which the historian, as interpreter and guide, has privileged access. In reality, historians are more likely than not providing their readers not with a tour of the past but with a tour of one or more archives, the creative work of teams or generations of archivists. It is they, through their process of selection, reorganization, and elimination, who largely determine what past can be accessed and, to a great extent, what that past might be. Archivists , one might well argue, are not preservers of their documents: they are their authors, engaged in work as creative, and as subjective, as that of those who originally penned individual texts or those modern historians who pretend to tell the past to the present. As a medievalist, my ability to access my sources is always mitigated by archivists, most of whom are anonymous toilers in medieval monasteries and religious houses. In recent years I have come to pay more attention to them than I had in the past, asking about their role in the creation of the texts that they have transmitted to us. In this essay, I address one speciac aspect of the work of medieval archivists, the compilation of cartularies or charter books, volumes that contain copies of the land records of medieval institutions, seen from the perspective not simply of preservation but of creation. I want to consider the compilers of these cartularies not as archivists but as authors. At a very basic level, it is doubly absurd to talk about the authors of cartularies. First, we medievalists are accustomed to classifying cartularies among archival com106 ⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮ Medieval Archivists as Authors Social Memory and Archival Memory Patrick Geary ⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯ pilations rather than literary texts. They are largely copies of individual land transactions, donations, sales, exchanges, and the like, themselves the work of many scribes, or scriptores, writing on the order of a bishop, abbot, or other authority—over long periods of time and following speciac legal or customary formulas—to record transactions normally involving the transfer of real property. We need not deny a certain creativity in the narratio of the charter itself, a certain literary sense of constructing reality by the scriptor, but even this mediocre level of creativity can hardly be assigned to the person who, decades or centuries later, recopied the charter into a cartulary. The cartulary, after all, exists at a secondary remove: at some point, as Wendy Davies beautifully showed in the case of the Redon cartulary, these individual charters, perhaps lying in a chest or in the pigeonholes of a monastic archive, are collected and...