Medieval Writing  
A Florilegium of Dates
The easiest way to understand something of the medieval method of dating documents is to look at a few examples from genuine documents. The following is a roughly chronological set of examples.

diploma of Childebert III
Dating clause from the bottom of a diploma of Childerbert III (Paris, Archives Nationales, K.3, Nr.9). (From Steffens 1929)

The dating clause about is from a diploma of the Merovingian king Childebert III, who reigned from 695 to 711. As it is written in Merovingian chancery script, I couldn't read it if my life depended on it, but the transcription given by Dr Steffens is as follows:

Dat(um) sub d(ie) X kal(endas) Ianuari(i), an(no) primo rign(i) n(ostr)i Given on 10 kalens January in the first year of our reign... (23rd December 695)

At the beginning of the line is a Chrismon symbol. Kalens is the first day of the month and to get the number you count backwards, so that 10 kalens is the 23rd December. The year is identified through the reign of the king, who is identified at the top of the diploma. This is an easy one, once you can read it.

charter of St Gall
Dating clause from a charter of St Gall of 757 (St Gallen, Stiftsarchiv, Urkunden I. 13). (From Steffens 1929)

In this earliest private charter of the abbey of St Gall, we are still in the Merovingian chancery script, but you can probably make out the word anno towards the end of the first line, which begins the date:

anno sexto Pippini regis die Mercuris XII K(a)l(endas) Ian(uarii) the 6th year of the reign of Pippin, Wednesday 12 kalens January (Wednesday 21st December 757)

Even though it is not a royal charter, the year is given by the reign of the king, which makes it 757. The addition of the day of the week helps with the reading, as 21st December (12 kalens) 757 fell on a Wednesday, which is the only thing that makes clear whether the Roman numerals represent XII or XV. You can see why it helps to have some sort of calendrical cheat sheet.

diploma of Charlemagne
Dating clause from a diploma of Charlemagne of 781 (Marburg, K. Preussisches Staatsarchiv). (From Steffens 1929)

The script is still Merovingian chancery script, but things will improve soon. Bits of extra complexity start to creep into the dating clauses. This one reads:

data in mens(e) Decemb(ri) anno quartodecimo et octavo regni n(ost)ri

given in the month of December in the 14th and 8th year of our reign (December 781)

The double date refers firstly to Charlemagne's accession to the throne of the Franks in October 768 and secondly to his conquest of the Lombards in June 774. After Charlemagne was crowned emperor, the dates on his diplomas became even more complex.

diploma of Louis the German
Dating clause from a diploma of Louis the German of 856 (St Gallen, Stiftsarchiv, Urkunden F.F. 1. H. 106). (From Steffens 1929)

While this still has something of Merovingian chancery script about it, it represents the change to the later form of diploma hand based on Caroline minuscule with very extended ascenders and descenders. Although it is quite compressed, it is getting easier to read. The dating clause reads:

data XVI k(alendas) Iul(ii) anno XXIIII regni hludouuici in orientali frantia regnante, indictione quarta

given on 16 kalens July, the 24th year of the reign of Louis (or Ludwig) in eastern Frankia, 4th indiction (16th June 856 - remember you count backwards to work out the day)

This introduces a new dating concept, the indiction, which was a 15 year cycle instituted by the Emperor Constantine, beginning on 1st September 312. In the Roman context it related to cycles of taxation, but was used in imperial diplomas from the later period of the reign of Charlemagne onward as a kind of honorific terminology. 4th indiction, refers to the fourth year of the 15 year cycle. It adds no real information, but can be used to confirm the date given by the reign of the monarch. Louis acceded in September 833. The 4th indiction coincides with 856, and coincides with the 24th year of the reign if the whole year 833 is counted as year 1, even though the actual regnal year 1 should have been from September 833 to September 834. (Stop complaining - I'm having to translate and paraphrase this from the German, so you should have no problem!)

Dating clause from a private charter from St Gall of 933 (St Gallen, Stiftsarchiv, Urkunden IV, 485). (From Steffens 1929)

This private charter is written in a nice neat Caroline minuscule, which should make it easy to read. It introduces a new form of dating which is entirely familiar to us today. The date, which begins on the second last word of the top line, reads:

annu(m) ab incar- natione d(omi)ni dccccxxxiii, indictione(m) vi, Regnante domno henrico xiii annos, sub comite Pernhardo, die iduu(m) Augustarum

in the year of the incarnation of the lord 933, 6th indiction, 13th year of the reign of lord Henry ............. ides August

Dating by the incarnation of the lord, otherwise known as the birth of Christ, Anno Domini, or AD, is what we still use. It was reputedly introduced by Bede, or at least he adopted it for general usage from tables then in use for calculating the date of Easter. By using AD, as well as the indiction year and the year of the monarch it would seem that the scribe was truly using belt and braces. Unfortunately for his thoroughness, while the 6th indiction does coincide with 933 AD, the 13th year of Henry the Fowler apparently does not coincide with these. This is evidently not an entirely uncommon occurrence in medieval documents, and is one of the many things that make paleography fun.



Dating Manuscripts
Why Read It?

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