Medieval Writing
Law and Administration
Earl Warrene In his wonderful book From Memory to Written Record (Clanchy1993) M.T. Clanchy makes much of a tale, often illustrated in old school books, concerning Earl Warenne and the commissioners of Edward I. The legend goes that when asked by what warrant he held his lands, the Earl pulled out a rusty sword, brandished it at the judges and claimed that the sword used by his ancestor at the side of William the Conqueror was his charter. Clanchy gives many reasons why this story could not be strictly true, including that even in ye olde medieval days earls did not go about flourishing naked blades at senior legal personnel representing the king. However, he feels that the story has a sort of symbolic truth in that the 13th century had been a crucial time of change in the methods of the law and administration.
A traditional schoolbook representation of Earl Warenne and his sword. Note that he is even pointing the blade at the commissioners. I think you could get hanged for that.  
Clanchy's study limits itself to England in the period 1066 to 1307, but it illustrates many generalities about the transition from a mode of conduct based around witnessed oral testimony to one based on a proliferation of written words. Despite the book's dense content, it is a great read. If you can find one, have a go at it.
Arguments about literacy can sometimes become very entangled in definitions of what literacy is, but it is important to try to see through the heavily constructed concept of literacy and the literate mode of living with which we have been indoctrinated since birth. Grab any oldfashioned history book and find where lack of written record is equated with complete illiteracy, ignorance, chaotic government, bad architecture, social inequity, long hair and poor personal hygeine.
King Alfred the Great, from the late 9th century, has been presented to history as a man who prized literacy and learning, who had great books translated from Latin into Old English. Some even say he did it himself, but the man at the top often gets the credit for the efforts of his workers. The famed Alfred Jewel is supposed to be a very posh bookmark, presented to some careless person to encourage the valuation of the written word by association with high class accessories. It has an inscription, itself a valuation of the word, and we presume it was that Alfred who was mentioned in it.
the Alfred Jewel
The Alfred Jewel
The Alfred Jewel is a gold, enamel and rock crystal assemblage with a socket at the end thought to have once held a long pointer. Like a number of things found in muddy fields in days of yore, it now resides in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. The inscription reads ÆLFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN or Alfred commanded me to be made.
Alfred did not, however, have a complex royal chancery full of scribes organised into multiple secretariats. There are no archives from his era, no books of laws, no records of the state of his treasury. In fact, the number of legal or administrative documents dating from before the Norman Conquest is extremely limited.

Charters or writs were produced by Anglo-Saxon kings, so they knew about them and they used them. Of the surviving 2000 or so, only a fraction exist as original authentic documents. The rest survive as copies or later forgeries. It is impossible to answer the question of how many have been lost to history, as in the absence of an archiving system, lost is lost.

There is a vast amount of information about this surviving corpus in the Anglo-Saxon Charters website.

A segment from a charter of Coenuulf, King of Mercia, of 812. (From Wright 1879)
What is known is that it was long after the Norman Conquest before legal and administrative affairs were conducted in a truly literate mode. The charter or writ was really a ceremonial object which served to symbolise a transaction carried out in oral mode. This does not mean that people were necessarily completely illiterate. It means that literacy was not conceptualised as part of this aspect of living, which had a long oral tradition.
Some early charters were not dated. None were signed. They comprised a form of public statement which was authenticated by the names of the witnesses present. These witnesses did not sign either. Their names were entered on the document by the scribe, in pre-Conquest and early post-Conquest documents beside a sign of the cross. This symbolised the solemnity of the witnessing process whereby the witnesses swore an oath before Christ as to the truth of what they were witnessing. Later authentication of the transaction required, not the document itself, but the oral testimony of the witnesses. It was essentially an oral process, the piece of parchment not being a legal document in the modern sense of requiring all legalistic conditions to be entered in writing, but rather being a symbolic object whose existence testified that a legal transaction had been carried out.
Crosses of the king (second left) and some of the witnesses to a late 11th century charter in Eton College Library. (From New Palaeographical Society 1904)
This is how the story of Earl Warenne's sword has an aspect of authenticity, even if it is not exactly true. A sword, a knife or another object could serve as the token of faith in an oral transaction as well as a piece of parchment scribbled on by a scribe. In the period of transition, there are written records which refer to the process of oral testimony.
A reverse charter, evidence for oral testimony

A grant by knife

In the days before the existence of a royal chancery, when the scribe was a learned monk, the piece of parchment may well have assumed a value related to an esteem for written works as objects of worth rather than to the content of the words. A similar psychology may apply to the practice of recording legal transactions in a blank leaf of a gospel book, the Biblical reference underlying the solemnity of a transaction under oath and the book itself serving as a ceremonial object of value.


The Concept of Literacy

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This site is created and maintained by Dr Dianne Tillotson, freelance researcher and compulsive multimedia and web author. Comments are welcome Material on this web site is copyright, but some parts more so than others. Please check here for copyright status and usage before you start making free with it. This page last modified 30/1/2005.