Thoughts on working with medieval manuscript fragments

After the last two posts, one about fragments of codices, the other about fragments of charters, I would like to share the following thoughts about working with such fragmentary sources.

Unfortunately, among the early medieval Spanish archives, one finds a great number of manuscripts that have reached the present day in a bad state of preservation, and it has become normal to discard them when preparing documentary corpora by institution, script style or geographical area (centre of production), because of the difficulty of studying them and exploiting the information they can provide.

The trend of collecting and studying fragments of codices is relatively new but has already proven its usefulness and importance on several occasions, given the interest these sources have on the history of the book and of culture [1]. The study of fragments of charters has attracted less attention, though – with the exception of documents related to the monarchy or those in which the acts of the foundation of cathedrals and monasteries are recorded – due, fundamentally, to their legal nature. The texts contained in charters are, for the most part, donations, exchanges and acquisitions of lands, transfers and agreements that follow the typical formulaic structure of the medieval period [2], and are, therefore, compared to fragments of codices, not particularly interesting. But they can be of crucial importance for the reconstruction of the history of the institutions directly or indirectly involved in the transactions, as well as to the history of written culture.

Recovering a fragment of a charter can contribute with new information on both the territories directly controlled by one monastery or another, allowing us to define its jurisdiction, and about the people mentioned on them, telling us about the abbots or other contemporary persons of interest. Similarly, having a new piece of written evidence brings us knowledge about a new scribe, and can provide us – through the study of the characteristics of his script, language and style – with references to the production centres and schools active in a given time and place. Indeed, looking into the reason for the document’s fragmentary state, whether it is a matter of destruction on purpose or not – if deliberate, we must ask why the document ceased to be legally valid; we recall how in the peak period of diplomatic codex and cartulary production (the 12th and 13th centuries), the charters copied into these new volumes were usually discarded unless they were originals of special importance because of their content (royal documents, for example). The intentional destruction of a codex, which we can study through its preserved fragments, can reveal interesting information about literary preferences, religious changes (from the Mozarabic to the Roman rite), the expansion of the printing press, etc. –, and when this deterioration took place, can reveal interesting details about its cultural context as well as the circumstances through which the archive went through across centuries.

Therefore, even if a fragment turns out to be completely illegible we cannot neglect its study.


[1] J. Alturo Perucho, “La aportación del estudio de los fragmentos y membra disiecta de códices a la historia del libro y de la cultura”, in Studia in codicum fragmenta, Bellaterra 1999, 11–40. 

[2] Compare with A. Floriano Cumbreño, Curso general de paleografía, y paleografía y diplomática españolas. Texto, Oviedo 1946.

by A. Castro

[edited 11/07/2018]

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