In the beautiful heart of the city of Vienna, in a magnificent building housing the State Archives (Wien, Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchiv) next to the Imperial Palace, a diverse gathering of academics held their mysterious conference concerning medieval Illuminated Charters. The issue must have indeed been fascinating, if the group chose to barter the sunny exuberance and unexpected 28 C heat of autumn days (12 -14 September 2016) in the alleys of the nearby park for a spacious white room illuminated by the self-same sunbeams and the dim image of the overhead in front.
What is an illuminated charter? This is the question me and Edgar unfailingly heard from friends and relatives when we told them we are going to Vienna to a conference on Illuminated Charters. I must confess that I was puzzled and mystified when I first read the call for papers ‘Illuminated Charters: From the Margins of two Disciplines to the Core of Digital Humanities’. This may have been the reason I enlisted my co-author’s and husband’s help and sent a proposal to the conference organisers, on ‘The Functions of Illuminated Charters from Latvian and Lithuanian Archives in European Context‘.
So we went there, to experience three wonderful days of productive work, unexpected insights, beautiful images on screen and in the archives and, most of all, to the company of enlightened and congenial colleagues whom I grateful for discussions, questions and suggestions – and, most of all, the papers they shared. We had ample opportunity to hold discussions after the papers, which began at 9 a.m. and were over by 6 p.m. The papers were followed, on the first day, by a breath-taking plenary of Prof. Alison Stones, ‘Some Illustrated French Charters (13th and 14th c.) and their Cultural Contexts’, where I was surprised to see that two charter illuminators have authored images in distinct Lancelot-Grail manuscripts, as well as illustrating other religious and profane texts in the course of their varied career. On the second day, we went on a guided tour of the archives, and were able to behold, admire and study those splendidly illuminated grants of arms, indulgencies and other legal documents which we have heard about and seen on screen.
Do we know now what an illuminated charter is? In fact, the answer is ever elusive, and the conference only made us increasingly aware of the generic diversity of this group of medieval material products. We had debates over what a charter is – can it be a book, or should it only consist of a single folded paper or roll? What constitutes an illumination? Can notarial devices and emblems count as decorative as well as informative and authentifying elements? How about the drawings and scribbles added next to or instead of signatures on early medieval charters? Are they written symbols or illuminations?
And, most tantalizingly, how can we recognise, collect, classify, index, store and access these different samples of illuminated charters? Can we use a digital platform and catalogues for collections, and what would be the advantages and limitations of different storage platforms, such as monasterium.net? We even delved into the legal implications of digital manuscripts and online access.
What the three days showed us, however, and mostly, is that illuminated charters are a varied and inhomogeneous body of material, which requires a multidisciplinary approach. Diplomatics and art history, as well as palaeography, digital studies, and even numismatics, had a part to play at the conference. We ransacked Europe from the early Middle Ages to the early modern period, moving from the Baltics to Italy, through France, England and Germany, and even to such apparently remote areas as Georgia, finding common traits as well as idiosyncrasies in the outlook, modes of use and production, and scholarly approaches to illuminated charters and their access and preservation in the digital age.