Women and law in medieval letters

Logo EpistolaeHow can you correct some of the deceptive perspectives, or even worse, outright biases, without surrendering your own powers of comprehension? What is humanly possible to change your mind? I think we should embrace every sincere invitation to let us listen better to voices easily overlooked in our regular research practice and use of sources. In the project under discussion in this post I will as usually try to look first of all for its qualities, and not only for things to be repaired or bettered. Epistolae: Medieval Women’s Latin Letters is a project created by Joan Ferrante, a professor of English literature at Columbia University, New York. Its core is a corpus of nearly 2,400 medieval letters, both in English translation and in the original languages. What does this substantial collection contain, and what not? How easy can you use its contents? What is in these letters for legal historians?

Spanning a continent and a millennium

The second logo of Epistolae

The letters in the Epistolae project are written in Latin. They date from the fourth to the thirteenth century, and thus there are texts from Late Antiquity up to the century which often has been seen as the apogee of the Middle Ages. The collection contains both letters sent by women and letters they received. Apart from browsing the entire collection you can search the letters using separate search fields for the title of a letters, senders and recipients, and there is also a global search field. The first three fields automatically generate suggestions for items containing a part of your search which you can select for quicker searching. By clicking on the title of a column in the results view you can change its sorting order. There is a basic bibliography for the resources used for this project, with in many cases only the title of publications and their presence in Columbia’s university library. In the second section of the project you will find biographies about the women figuring in the project.

One of the things I quickly noticed is probably one of the historian’s idols, the absence of years or a period of years in a number of search results. In some cases a global date can be added easily because we know the years in which the sender or recipient lived. Historians prefer to know from which period or year, or when necessary even from which date a source stems. Temporal precision helps you to avoid generalisations for a period like the European Middle Ages which span a continent during a millennium. However, the thing clearly most important here is showing the existence of letters written by women or received by women in a language mostly associated with men and male education.

However large the number of more than 2,300 letters may seem, you will probably want to see as many letters written by women as possible, and in a second set letters written to women, and you might want to have also easy access to letters sent among women, but I do not see here the possibility to create this subset quickly. With this in mind I was rather amazed that you will find for Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) only three letters dictated by her and three sent to her. Her correspondence is good for three volumes in the modern scholarly edition, Hildegardis Bingensis, Epistolarium, Lieven Van Acker and Monika Klaes-Hachmoller (eds.) (Turnhout: 1991-2001; Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Medievalis, 91, 91a and 91b), commonly seen as the one of the largest collections of letters written by a medieval woman. Hildegard is justly famed for the wide variety of people she wrote to and writing to her. The examples given here are restricted to letters to Elisabeth von Schonau, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Bernard of Clairvauc, and letters of Bernard of Clairvaux and Elisabeth von Schonau. The entrance for Hildegard of Bingen mentions the English translation [The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, Joseph L. Baird and Radd K. Ehrman (Oxford etc., 1994, 1998, 2004)]. I did not find a statement on the website for this severely restricted choice, but it might be a matter of creating a balance between well-known and lesser known women.

A Dutch and Flemish view

You could bet I would look in the database of Epistolae for Dutch women, and this is indeed fruitful and revealing. There are 127 search results for a global search with the term Holland, and 208 results when you search for Flanders. However, something else becomes also visible. Each letter with more than one sender or recipient is recorded as many times as there are senders and recipients. Let’s look for example at the two charters of count William of Holland addressed to Margaret of Constantinople, countess of Flanders, written both May 19, 1250 in Brussels. I could not help spotting that William is according to the first charter only count of Holland, and in the second charter he figures as king of Romans. Ashleigh Imus provided Ebnglish translations of these charters. I checked the text also in the source mentioned at Epistolae, the Oorkondenboek van Holland en Zeeland tot 1299 (OHZ), A.C.F. Koch, J.G. Kruisheer en E.C. Dijkhof (eds.) (5 vol., The Hague 1970-2006) digitized by the Huygens Institute / Institute for Dutch History.

The first charter, no. 851 in the OHZ, reads clearly “Willelmus Dei gratia Romanorum rex semper augustus, comes Hollandie,” both king and count, with for Margaret, “Margareta Flandrie et Hainonie comitissa”, yet another county, Hainault. In the second charter (OHZ, no. 856) William is called only king of Romans, “Willelmus Dei gratia Romanorum rex semper augustus”. When you check the OHZ you will see Margaret figures in more charters dated May 19, 1250. In no. 858 her name is abbreviated. No. 701 of December 16, 1246 is present in the Epistolae database, but this charter was not addressed to the abbot and monastery of Doesburg. Thosan is the Flemish monastery at Ter Doest.

In yet another letter, this time addressing pope Gregory IX in 1242, Ashleigh Imus rightly corrected a misprinted location in an old Italian edition. The charter mentions indeed Veurne (Furnes) in Flanders. There is a summary of this charter in the registers of pope Innocent IV [Les Registres d’Innocent IV (1243-1254) I, Elie Berger (ed.) (Paris 1884), p. 52, no. 290], dated “Datum Lateranensi VI Idus Decembris”, December 8, 1243, and not on “III Nonas Decembris”, December 3, and edited from the papal register Reg. Avon. I 289, f. 47. I could not find this charter at the Belgian portal Diplomatica Belgica. Ferrante mentions the conflict about Hainault in her very interesting short biography of Margaret of Constantinople (1202-1280), without however caring to give the date of her birth and death.

You can check the charters of the only Dutch king of the Holy Roman Empire also in Die Urkunden Heinrich Raspes und Wilhelms von Holland, Dieter Hägermann and Jaap Kruisheer (eds.) (Hannover 1989; Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Diplomata), available online at dMGH, the digital platform of the MGH in Munich. The two charters nicely shows the difficulties of recording in a database the presence of multiple people involved with one item, and in this case even two person with two roles in the first charter. Things are clearly not entirely correct when you cannot find Margaret when you use a global search for Hainault. I am afraid that you got to be very much aware of the fact that only 800 letters have been entered into the Epistolae database, even though 2000 letters have been collected and await further treatment.

If you want to follow the trail of charters in the Low Countries you can consult online several modern editions. For Guelders you have the Oorkondenboek van Gelre en Zutphen tot 1326, for the diocese Utrecht Oorkondenboek van het Sticht Utrecht tot 1301, S. Muller Fz. et alii (eds.) (5 vol., Utrecht 1920-‘s-Gravenhage 1959). For Brabant the Digitaal Oorkondenboek van Noord-Brabant brings you even more than the printed editions. Older editions for Frisia, Groningen and Drenthe can be consulted and searched at the Cartago platform.

Letters and charters

My probings in the Epistolae database point in the direction of a conclusion which is not entirely surprising. It seems a good thing to put in both real letters and charters into one database on the same footing, but alas charters need to be treated in a very distinct way in order to become usable for research. The projects for Holland, Utrecht and Guelders give you a searchable database and both OCR-scanned texts and images of the original edition. Of course you want to use all possible relevant sources about particular women, but putting them into a database and creating a reliable scholarly resource is not an easy thing, regardless of the subject you want to investigate. In the Epistolae database you cannot search directly for letters by women sent to other women, a thing many people will want to look for. In many charters women, in particular those of high rank in medieval society, do all kinds of things, in particular actions with legal consequences. It is perfectly understandable that you would like to have as many sources as possible in a single online resource, but one has to accept some consequences. To the philological skills needed to study medieval letters you will have to add the skills of the classic historical auxiliary sciences such as diplomatic,s the study of charters, and palaeography.

Joan Ferrante wisely choose to rely on printed editions for her enterprise. Her knowledge of medieval literature and approaches of this vast subject has led her to launching a database that has its strength primarily in the letters given both in Latin and English. Realizing the idea of wanting to show both writing letters and using the pen for legal matters in charters is not unthinkable, but it will be a tour de force. Finding the voices of medieval women is a quest in itself, but you cannot afford to lose sight of all tools needed and existing.

Another thing that needs stressing is attention to the epistolary genre with its own particularities. You can get an idea of a further mixture of matters relevant to legal history by looking for example at a recent volume concerning the papacy and letters, Kuriale Briefkultur im späteren Mittelalter. Gestaltung – Überlieferung – Rezeption, Tanja Broser, Andreas Fischer and Matthias Thumser (eds.) (Cologne-Weimar Vienna, 2015; Regesta Imperii Beihefte, 37), available online at the website of the Regesta Imperii. In his contribution in this volume,  ‘Letter-Collections in the Middle Ages’ (pp. 35-50), Giles Constable explains medieval letters are most often transmitted within collections. A real letter could be expanded and refined to serve as a literary text. He stresses the double nature of letters and charters which can have both a personal and businesslike character. Constable urges scholars to look carefully at each individual letter, and not to conclude things hastily because it is preserved in a particular collection. Wise words from not just one of the best known medievalists, but from a doyen in the field of medieval letters. His volume on Letters and letter-collections (Turnhout 1976; Typologie des sources du Moyen Âge occidental, 17) has been digitized by the MGH. You can learn basic things about medieval letters also in the chapter ‘Epistolography’ by Julian Heseldine in Medieval latin: An introduction and bibliographical guide, Frank Mantello and Arthur Rigg (eds.) (Washington, D.C., 1997) 650-658. On the resources page of Epistolae this guide is mentioned without a reference to this chapter.

Logo MGH, Munich

Speaking of the MGH, it is now possible to find at their dMGH platform also editions of letters in the Epistolae series, in particular the volumes of the Epistolae saeculi XIII e regestis pontificum Romanorum selectae, Karl Rodenberg (ed.) (3 vol., Berlin 1883-1897; MGH Epp. saec. XIII) in which you will find both real letters and more official correspondence. A letter to Joan of Constantinople, countess of Flanders and Hainault, sent by pope Gregory IX on November 5, 1235 (I, 563, no. 666) can be added in the Epistolae database. Among the latest publications of the MGH is the Codex Udalrici, Klauss Nass (ed.) (Wiesbaden 2017; MGH, Die Briefe der deutschen Kaiserzeit, 10) with early twelfth-century letters around the investiture conflict compiled by a cleric at Bamberg.

Visible and invisible filters

When finishing this post I could look also at the remarks about medieval letters in the first edition in Dutch from 1962 of the famous Guide to the sources of medieval history (Oxford 1995), also translated and updated as Introduction aux sources de l’histoire médiévale: typologie, histoire de l’érudition médiévale, grandes collections, sciences auxiliaires, bibliographie (Turnhout 1997) by Raoul van Caenegem and François Ganshof, to mention only the latest versions. Both authors mentioned in 1962 already everything I summarized here from later introductions to a rewarding genre which you cannot approach as if you can read everything at face value.

Banner Feminae

The most paradoxical thing about the project of Joan Ferrante is her apparent neglect as a professor of medieval literature of a thing which any student would know and duly acknowledge. It is one thing to set out to correct the bias filtering medieval women out of view, another thing to tackle the apparent biases in two distinct kinds of sources, medieval letters and charters. Both genres share a mixture of objective matters and personal touches. I am convinced of the need to use gender perspectives, but perhaps I am also too much a medievalist to forget about the challenges medieval sources pose for any kind of research. What can and has been done in research about medieval women can be traced in the online bibliography at Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index. You should not miss the bibliographies at Queens in the Middle Ages, too. A portal such as Monastic Matrix concerning medieval women’s religious communities is a model of its kind. The presence of English translations and accompanying biographies is surely most valuable for the Epistolae project, but the mélange of letters and charters has resulted in a rather unexpected mixture. It would be wonderful to use both genres together in one database, but one has to overcome some very real problems before you are able to hear the true voices of medieval women. In my opinion this database deserves a remix, an update with the 1200 letters waiting to be entered, and some tuning of the biographies and search interface to become fully operational as a search tool which can fulfill many needs.

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