Picture your average nineteenth-century historian working with medieval sources: accounts and charters are his daily bread, his life is a seemingly dull existence in dark and dusty rooms surrounded by his beloved sources. Picture your average armchair historian today: surfing the web hour after hour, plodding through many worthless websites, and still seldom finding quickly what you are looking for. If our grandfathers could look today for medieval charters online, they would be stunned at the number and the form of the digital charterbooks, Urkundenbücher, cartulaires and oorkondenboeken you can access at home. The question for us is more often: where to start? It is the good old Virtual Library, and in particular the German branch in Munich, VL Geschichte, that offers a fine starting point. And yes indeed, as used to be the practice in the nineteenth century, you will need to know German to read the judicious comments on the websites presented there. At the very least admit that it is at last a page with detailed comments! Call it a rite of initiation to the historian’s trade, but anyway it reminds you of the fact it will not do to just read the edition of a charter and to use it immediately for any purpose.
Charters have a juridical content -and form, too, very often- but they are not just juridical records. Auxiliary disciplines such as paleography and diplomatics which assist the interpretation and use of charters exist already since the late seventeenth century, and history does cross regional, national and linguistic borders. Roughly speaking one can distinguish sites which present only the texts of medieval charters, accompanied by the annotations of the editor(s), and sites which offer both the original charters and an edition, sometimes also a digitized version of the original edition. Deciphering the original handwriting can be quite a feat, understanding annotation is not always straightforward business. Two examples of websites on charters: the most ambitious and far ranging project is probably Monasterium, “das virtuelle Urkundenarchiv Europas”, with apart from summaries and digitized images useful information such as glossaries, reference works and institutions, and 140,000 charters online from Austria, Germany and Italy; the site can be viewed in nine languages. The Codice diplomatico della Lombardia medievale (secoli VIII-XII) provides enriched editions of charters from existing editions, and also a repertory of notaries (as yet only for Pavia). The developments in early medieval Lombardy have been seminal for the development of notaries on the continent, a point stressed by Kees Cappon on January 29, 2010, in his inaugural lecture at the chair for the history of the notariate at Amsterdam University. The CDLM-project is developed in collaboration with Scrineum, a consortium for the study of medieval sources and books in Northern Italy, with its own online journal.
The internet offers also guides to the more familiar printed form of sources. Columbia University has a page which guides you to editions of medieval papal documents, but unfortunately papal registers after pope Innocent III are not mentioned at all. It is only fair to mention the digital collections at Columbia University Libraries which include the Digital Scriptorium, the Advanced Papyrological Information System and the John Jay Papers. If you insist on finding online at least the titles of those papal registers after 1216 the bibliography by Thomas Frenz at the Universität Passau should be your safe haven. Frenz treats also paleography, heraldry and medieval Latin. The French portal Ménestrel for medieval studies has fine sections on Diplomatique and Cartulaires. Searching the wealth of French cartularies is even easier using cartulR, the repertory of medieval and modern cartularies created at the IRHT in Paris and Orléans. French researchers have not hesitated to give the CNRS network site on diplomatics a Latin name, De rebus diplomaticis. An updated edition of G.R.C. Davis’ Medieval Cartularies of Great Britain and Ireland (first edition 1958) is scheduled for publication in a few months by the British Library. Let’s end this post with a link to Scottish charters and cartularies at Glasgow University, because there you will find also a useful links selection in English.