The formal structure of a medieval charter

All paleography and manuscript studies book note  how difficult transcribing charters and diplomas are as opposed to nice, smooth calligraphic books such as Bibles, treatises, books of hours, etc. However, such an effort is swiftly rewarded by an improved ability to decode almost all sorts of texts and documents.

There are many reasons why this exercise can often be bitter and they are all related to the script. The fact that the same scribes who wrote colorful books acted as secretaries and official court scribes and therefore wrote most of the charters and diplomas can be of little help and consolation for the beginner transcriber.

To make his job somewhat easier, I will present the elements that make up a royal charter (baronial and seigneurial as well to some extent) and try to work through the lines of England’s king Stephen’s Oxford charter (1136) to illustrate the structure of medieval charter production.

I shall begin by presenting the composing elements of a charter. Not all these elements appear in all charts but the more official a document is, the more it comes closer to this canonical structure.

Initial protocol



invocatio: invocation of the Diety, either by a symbolic chrismon or cross, or in words

narratio: background of the case

subscriptio: names of principal(s), witnesses and officials

intitulatio: name of individual issuing the charter

dispositio: what is enacted by the charter

datum: date clause, stating when, where and by whom he charter was written

inscriptio: name of individual(s) to whom charter is addressed

final clauses

marks of authentication: subscriptions, signatures, seal

salutatio: greeting



I will now try to pinpoint the elements in the transcribed text of king Stephen’s charter:

[INTITULATIO->] Ego Stephanus [INVOCATIO->] Dei gratia, [INSCRIPTIO->] assensu cleri et populi in regem Anglie electus, et a Willelmo Cantuariensi archiepiscopo et sancte Romane ecclesie legato consecratus, et ab Innocentio sancte romane sedis pontifice postmodum confirmatus, [SALUTATIO->] respectu et amore Dei sanctam ecclesiam liberam esse concedo, et debitam reverentiam illi confirmo. [NARRATIO->] Nichil me in ecclesia vel rebus ecclesiasticis simoniace acturum vel permissurum esse promitto. Ecclesiasticarum personarum et omnium clericorum et rerum eorum justiciam et potestatem et distributionem bonorum ecclesiasticorum in manu episcoporum esse perhibeo et confirmo. Dignitates ecclesiarum privilegiis earum confirmatas et consuetudines earum antiquo tenore habitas inviolate manere statuo et concedo. Omnes ecclesiarum possessiones et tenuras, quas die illa habuerunt qua Willelmus rex avus meus fuit vivus et mortuus, sine omni calumpniantium reclamatione, eis liberas et absolutas esse concedo. Si quid vero de habitis vel possessis ante mortem ejusdem regis quibus modo careat, ecclesia deinceps repetierit, indulgentie et dispensationi mee vel restituendum vel discutiendum reservo. Quecunque vero post mortem ipsius regis liberalitate regum vel largitione principum, oblatione vel comparatione, vel qualibet transmutatione fidelium eis collata sunt, confirmo. Pacem et justiciam me in omnibus facturum et pro posse meo conservaturum eis promitto.

Forestas quas Willelmus avus meus et Willelmus avunculus meus instituerunt et habuerunt mihi reservo. Ceteras omnes quas rex Henricus superaddidit, ecclesiis et regno quietas reddo et concedo.

[DISPOSITIO->] Si quis episcopus vel abbas vel alia ecclesiastica persona ante mortem suam rationabiliter sua distribuerit vel distribuenda statuerit, firmum manere concedo. Si vero morte preoccupatus fuerit, pro salute anime ejus, ecclesie consilio, eadem fiat distributio. Dum vero sedes propriis pastoribus vacue fuerint, ipsas et earum possessiones omnes in manu et custodia clericorum vel proborum hominum ejusdem ecclesie committam, donec pastor canonice substituatur.

[FINAL CLAUSE->] Omnes exactiones et injusticias et mescheningas sive per vicecomites vel per alios quoslibet male inductas funditus exstirpo. Bonas leges et antiquas et justas consuetudines in murdris et placitis et aliis causis observabo et observari precipio et constituo. Hec omnia concedo et confirmo, salva regia et justa dignitate mea.

[SUBSCRIPTIO->] Testibus Willelmo Cantuariensi archiepiscopo, et Hugone Rothomagensi archiepiscopo, et Henrico Wintoniensi episcopo, et Rogero Saresberiensi episcopo, et Alexandro Lincolniensi episcopo, et Nigello Eliensi episcopo, et Evrardo Norwicensi episcopo, et Simone Wigorniensi episcopo, et Bernardo episcopo de S. Davide, et Audoeno Ebroicensi episcopo, et Ricardo Abrincensi episcopo, et Roberto Herefordiensi episcopo, et Johanne Rovecestriensi episcopo, et Athelulfo Carlolensi episcopo, et Rogero cancellario, et Henrico nepote Regis, et Roberto comite Gloecestrie, et Willelmo comite de Warenna, et Rannulfo comite Cestrie, et Rogero comite de Warewic., et Roberto de Ver., et Milone de Gloecestria, et Brientio filio Comitis, et Roberto de Oilly conestabulis, et Willelmo Martello, et Hugone Bigot, et Hunfredo de Buhun, et Simone de Belcamp dapiferis, et Willelmo de Albiniaco, et Eudone Martello pincernis, et Roberto de Ferreriis, et Willelmo Pevrello de Notingeham, et Simone de Saintliz, et Willelmo de Albamarla, et Pagano filio Johannis, et Hamone de Sancto Claro, et Ilberto de Laceio. Apud Oxeneford. [DATUM->]Anno ab incarnatione Domini M.C. XXXVI., set regni mei primo. [Following signature and seal]

At times, the invocatio may be absent, like this 14th century “lettre de rémission” delivered by the king of France, Charles V to a certain Guiot the Fair: the document reads: “Charles etcetera…”. Even the intitulatio is abridged. The seal and the signature nonetheless show the letter is royal in nature and gives impunity to the formerly convicted Guiot.

What remains constant however is the presence of the narratio and dispositio since these two elements constitute the substance of any official document.

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