What is an Illuminated Charter?

What is a charter? What is an illuminated charter? On several occasions during the Illuminated Charters workshop, we faced the issue of definition. The project website, of course, provides a definition, outlining the legal nature of the document in question and excluding cartularies from analysis:

Charters are originals of legal documents which follow specific internal and external criteria. Chartularies, even so often richly illuminated, do not stand at our focus.

Illuminiated charters in the broadest sense are charters with drawn (graphic) or painted elements beside the context script.

The website, helpfully, distinguishes between three levels of illumination:

  • Charters with figural (depictive) decoration which is historiated
  • Charters with drawn (graphic) decoration or display scripts with decorative character,
  • Graphic means of authentication

Illuminated indulgence at the State Archives in Vienna

However, it seems that each national tradition of scholarship has their own approaches. Thus, one possibility may be to include everything produced in the chancery into the category of charters. Another approach would be to limit the scope of inquiry based on formal features: a document on one page, with signatures or other subscriptions, sealed or having place for a seal. Yet a third possibility is to make the analysis functional: as advised by a certain lawyer, a legal document would be any document that would result in certain action, the imposition of legal obligation, etc. In particular, indulgencies, though envisaging a contract of non-material kind, fit the functional definition well.

Not content with the conclusion of the day, I turned to literature, and found the matter well discussed by Karl Heidecker in the ‘Introduction’ to Charter and the Use of the Written Word in Medieval Society, ed. by Karl Heidecker (Turnhout: Brepols, 2000), pp. 1-12

According to Heidecker, the German term Urkunde, often translated in English as ‘charter’ has been defined, classically, by Harry Bresslau as ‘written declarations meant to serve as evidence of actions of a legal kind, recorded in specific forms, which are, however, changing according to the various persons, times, places and topics concerned’ (2; translation from Harry Bresslau, Handbuch der Urkundenlehre für Deutschland und Italien, vol. 1 (Leipzig, 1889), p. 1). Further on Heidecker explains that

‘Charters, as defined by Bresslau, as a genre have the advantage that they have been written during the entire Middle Ages and have touched the lives of many social groups. Charters are not only written texts but also material things. Their texts are written down, preserved, copied (and often rewritten in the process), and used in many ways by different people.’ (4)

Front CoverThus, Heidecker proposes a wide, multidisciplinary approach, that would examine not only the text, but also the physical make-up of the charter and their effects. This is in contrast with the earlier tendencies in diplomatics, which tended to focus on the text, with little or no attention given to the paleographic and artistic features of the documents, as argued by Olivier Guyotjeanin in his overview of diplomatic studies from the eighteenth century onwards (The Diplomatist and Illuminated Documents). According to Guyotjeanin, due to their training, diplomatists were not well placed to examine and analyse the place of image in the document. In the manuals on diplomacy between 1830s and 1930s, with few exceptions, little was said on the decorative aspects of documents. The first to note the place of illustration in charters in Arthur Giry in his Manuel de diplomatique (Paris, 1894, reprinted Geneva, 1975, pp. 504-506). A generation later, Alain de Boüard, Manuel de diplomatique francaise et pontificale, alludes to decoration among his notes on palaeography, and comments mostly on the colour of ink – blue, red, or black.

In fact, as Guyotjeanin has stressed, research into the visual features of charters, and examples from elsewhere in Europe, gradually developed from the 1980s onwards. The works of Ghislain Brunel (study of Charles V’s ordinance on the age of majority of the dauphin, the initial of which is decorated with two dolphins), Jéhanno, Benoît Grévin, Elizabeth Danbury as well as the volume edited by Ghislain Brunel and Marc Smith (acts from the Journée d’études of 15 May 2011) add to the scholarship of charter decoration.

The question of what can be considered as illuminative and decorative elements, how to identify and classify them, are equally essential, and were treated in other contributions at the conference on Illuminated Charters. However, I would say that everything which is not strictly functional is decorative, and, if it strikes the viewer’s eye, the aims of the charter decorator and the patron under whose guidance the charter was produced have been reached.

About thegrailquest

Anastasija Ropa holds a doctoral degree from Bangor University (North Wales), for a study in medieval and modern Arthurian literature. She has published a number of articles on medieval and modern Arthurian literature, focusing on its historical and artistic aspects. She is currently employed as guest lecturer at the Latvian Academy of Sport Education. Anastasija’s most recent research explores medieval equestrianism in English and French literary art and literature, and she is also engaged as part-time volunteer horse-trainer. In a nutshell: Lecturer at the Latvian Academy of Sport Education Graduate of the School of English, University of Wales, Bangor. Graduate of the University of Latvia Passionate about history, particularly the Middle Ages A horse-lover and horse-owner
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