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Manuscript Studies
Medieval and Early Modern

II. Topics in Diplomatics


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Diplomatics is the study of "diplomata" or "instrumenta," particularly (though not exclusively) documents of legal force. "Diploma" in classical Latin designates a pair of strips of metal on which was recorded the grant of land to a soldier on completion of his service, and from there is extended to cover all forms of charters, and then all forms of documentary evidence. The modern use of the term was invented in the seventeenth century, and the first great and still influential study of De re diplomatica was by Jean Mabillon and published in 1681. Mabillon's subtitle is, in large part, a definition which (to an extent) still holds good: diplomatics is the study of "quidquid ad veterum instrumentorum antiquitatem, materiam, scripturam et stilum; quidquid ad sigilla, monogrammata, subscriptiones ac notas chonologicas; quidquid inde ad antiquariam, historicam, forensemque disciplinam pertinet" ["whatever pertains to ancient instruments, their age, material, writing and style; whatever pertains to seals, monograms, signatures, or chronological notes; whatever pertains to the study of the antiquity, history, and legal force of such things"]. Notice the inclusion of "scripturam": it is to Mabillon that we owe the origins of the science of paleography (conceived originally as a part of diplomatics), and to him that we owe the broad distinction between "book" hands ("scriptura litteratoria") and "charter" (or "documentary" or "court") hands ("scriptura forensis seu diplomatica"), corresponding to his notion of a fundamental distinction between two forms of document (those with "real" effects, such as a transfer of property, and those without "real" effects, such as the Canterbury Tales).

Father Leonard Boyle's essay on "Diplomatics" in Medieval Studies: An Introduction is a good place to begin. He offers something of a history of the seventeenth-century debate between Mabillon and Daniel Van Papenbroeck, and from there traces later developments and debates about what "diplomatics" is to include. Father Boyle resists the attempts of some to limit strictly "diplomatics" to the study of legal documents, but sides with those who see the discipline as being the application of the principles of literary criticism and interpretation to all documents of historical interest. Thus diplomatics is the study of every kind of "historical" document in the broadest sense, including but not limited to deeds of real property, judicial records, accounts, inventories, record keeping of any sort, contracts, transfers of rights, deeds of manumission, settling of boundaries, or registers of letters issued from any office.

The bulk of Father Boyle's essay suggests an approach to the study of any historical document by applying the Ciceronian "topoi." In studying a document, the scholar must establish the who, what, when, where, and why. In terms of "who," one must attempt to identify as far as possible all the persons involved in the document, whether as principals or seconds: the "actor," the "destinarius," the witnesses, the notaries, the scribes. In the search for such information, guides to the names of holders of particular offices at particular times may be useful, as well as standard dictionaries of biography. The "what" of a document includes a consideration of its quality (its authenticity and reliability), its features, and physical makeup; a full and accurate transcription is a "sine qua non," and this will require paleographical skill, linguistic expertise, and especially a knowledge of the conventions and formulae of expression in the particular kind of document with which one is faced (there are different worlds of vocabulary, usage, and convention between one kind of document and another, with which one needs to be familiar before attempting an interpretation). One should also study the erasures, in an attempt to determine what changes have been made; comparison with other copies (such as in the register of the "actor") may help one in determining whether erasures were done before or after the document was issued. And one should not forget to examine the dorse (reverse side) of a document for marks indicating the date of receipt, notarial commentary, summaries, and so forth. The "when" and "where," the dating and localizing of the document, will be key factors in determining its significance and effect; questions of "where" may require consulting dictionaries of antique or Latin placenames, and questions of when can be aided by such tools as Cheney's Handbook of Dates, which lists regnal years for English kings, festivals, and saints' days, which are often used in the dating of ancient documents. And all of these contribute to one's conclusions about the "why" of the document: what purpose did it serve? what action does it perform?

The term "diplomatics," then, is a broad one, covering the range of skills and methods required in the study and interpretation of the historical significance of documents.


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[ Course Notes: Introduction ] | [ I. Towards a definition of "manuscript studies" ] | [ I.ii. The four branches of bibliographical study ] | [ I.iii. Topics in the social history of texts ] | [ II. Diplomatics ] | [ III. Codicology ] | [ III.ii. Decoration and Illumination ] | [ IV. Paleography ] | [ IV.ii. Historical Notes ] | [ IV.iii. Writing Implements ] | [ IV.iv. Letter Formation ] | [ IV.v. Special Characters in English Manuscripts ] | [ IV.vi. Scribal Abbreviations ] | [ IV.vii. Punctuation ] | [ IV.viii. Paleographical sample: William Herebert, OFM (early fourteenth-century England) ] | [ Herebert sample, with transcription ] | [ Herebert sample: enlargement of full page reproduced at high resolution ] | [ V. Textual analysis (James E. Thorpe) ] | [ V.ii. Scribal error ] | [ V.iii. Kinds of edition ] | [ V.iv. Examples of over emendation on insufficient grounds ] | [ VI. Linguistic competence (an example): An Outline History of the English Language ] | [ VII. Libraries and archives: ] | [ VII.ii. British Library Manuscript Collections ] | [ VII.iii. Bodleian Library Manuscript Collections ]


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© 1998 Stephen R. Reimer
English; University of Alberta; Edmonton, Canada
All rights reserved.
Created: 2 Dec. 1998; Last revised: 2 Dec. 1998

email: Stephen.Reimer@UAlberta.Ca
URL: http://www.ualberta.ca/~sreimer/ms-course.htm