Interpreting the charters of Anglo-Saxon England

By Albert Fenton. Albert is a PhD student in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at the University of Cambridge. His research focuses on the documentary culture of late Anglo-Saxon England.

A charter of Bishop Ealdred of Worcester to Dodda, his minster, granting a lease and drawn up as a chirograph (S 1405).

Of all the forms of writing that have survived from Anglo-Saxon England, charters are amongst the most compelling.

The word ‘charter’ itself has a broad meaning, and applies to a diverse range of different types of material, which came to be preserved in the archives of religious houses across the country until the dissolution of the monasteries.

One such type of charter is the royal diploma, usually written in Latin, which provided evidence of a grant of land made by the king to another group or individual, done with the approval of an assembly of the king’s favoured courtiers and leading magnates. These documents were important and often visually imposing, reflected by the complexity of their Latin and the rhetorical claims they made about the power and authority of Anglo-Saxon rulers. Other forms of charter include wills, royal and ‘private’ writs, leases, manumissions, marriage agreements and memoranda recording legal disputes, often written in the vernacular language, Old English.

These documents emanated from all sorts of different locations – some of them were associated with the royal court and the agency of the king and those close to him, others from local shire courts where disputes were thrashed out and critical judgements made. Sometimes these texts were preserved in chirographic form – meaning that the document was written out in duplicate, triplicate or quadruplicate. The document could then be cut or torn, across the word ‘CYROGRAPHVM’ (the feet of the sliced letters can be seen dangling from the top section of the document, above.) If the claims of the document came into contention, the divided sections of the chirograph could be reunited, and its veracity re-asserted in a very public, very demonstrable way. It was a creative strategy that allowed charters to be used as weapons in quarrels and feuds, in a society where the symbolic power of the written word was widely accepted. Some sixty-four chirograph-form charters survive from England before the Norman Conquest – indicating that they were a popular way to defend yourself and your interests in an uncertain world.

Through painstaking analysis of this large, complex and diverse body of charters, historians have made profound discoveries and overturned established orthodoxies about the nature of early English culture, identity, politics, society, landscape and law.

Just as tantalisingly, charters also offer evidence of how people may have been speaking differently across England in this period. Amongst the most recent body of charters to be critically edited are those preserved in the archives of Canterbury Cathedral. This is a particularly large archive, and an important one, since many of the charters survive as originals on contemporary single-sheets of parchment membrane, rather than as later copies in registers, cartularies or manuscripts. As charters were copied and re-copied in later decades, their spelling often got altered and mangled, so the contemporary nature of these written artefacts makes them all the more precious to us.

One interesting trait noted by the editors of the Canterbury charters are characteristic spellings – most notably the frequent dropping of initial h-, or the insertion of a redundant h- in words starting with a vowel – usually in periods when charters were being written by clerks from within the cathedral community itself. But when charters were being drawn up by scribes attached to the king’s retinue, the Kentish forms gave way to West Saxon forms: the more hegemonic, ‘standard’ variety of Old English.

Could this dropping of the initial h- in many of the Kentish charters be a dialectal feature that has survived to this day in the estuary accents of north Kent, Essex and London? It’s certainly an alluring possibility, and a reminder of how the distant past can be different, compelling – and yet eerily familiar.

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