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Diplomatic Documents

Classification of Documents

If we classify these documents under the two main heads of public and private deeds, we shall have to place in the former category the legislative, administrative, judicial, diplomatic documents emanating from public authority in public form: laws, constitutions, ordinances, privileges, grants and concessions, proclamations, decrees, judicial records, pleas, treaties; in a word, every kind of deed necessary for the orderly government of a civilized state. In early times many of these were comprised under the general term of “letters,” litterae, and to the large number of them which were issued in open form and addressed to the community the specific title of “letters patent,” litterae patentes, was given. In contradistinction those public documents which were issued in closed form under seal were known as “close letters,” litterae clausae.

Such public documents belong to the state archives of their several countries, and are the monuments of administrative and political and domestic history of a nation from one generation to another. In no country has so perfect a series been preserved as in our own. Into the Public Record Office in London have been brought together all the collections of state archives which were formerly stored in different official repositories of the kingdom. Beginning with the great survey of Domesday, long series of enrolments of state documents, in many instances extending from the times of the Angevin kings to our own day in almost unbroken sequence, besides thousands of separate deeds of all descriptions, are therein preserved (see Record).

Under the category of private documents must be included, not only the deeds of individuals, but also those of corporate bodies representing private interests and standing in the position of individual units in relation to the state, such as municipal bodies and monastic foundations. The largest class of documents of this character is composed of those numerous conveyances of real property and other title deeds of many descriptions and dating from early periods which are commonly described by the generic name of “charters,” and which are to be found in thousands, not only in such public repositories as the Public Record Office and the British Museum, but also in the archives of municipal and other corporate bodies throughout the country and in the muniment-rooms of old families. There are also the records of the manorial courts preserved in countless court-rolls and registers; also the scattered muniments of the dissolved monasteries represented by the many collections of charters and the valuable chartularies, or registers of charters, which have fortunately survived and exist both in public and in private keeping.

It will be noticed that in this enumeration of public and private documents in England reference is made to rolls. The practice of entering records on rolls has been in favour in England from a very early date subsequent to the Norman Conquest; and while in other countries the comprehensive term of “charters” (literally “papers”: Gr. χάρτης) is employed as a general description of documents of the middle ages, in England the fuller phrase “charters and rolls” is required. The master of the rolls, the Magister Rotulorum, is the official keeper of the public records.

From the great body of records, both public and private, many fall easily and naturally into the class in which the text takes a simpler narrative form; such as judicial records, laws, decrees, proclamations, registers, &c., which tell their own story in formulae and phraseology early developed and requiring little change. These we may leave on one side. For fuller description we select those deeds which, conferring grants and favours and privileges, conform more nearly to the idea of the Roman diploma and have received the special attention of the chanceries in the 302 development and arrangement of their formulae and in their methods of execution.

Structure of medieval diplomas

All such medieval deeds are composed of certain recognized members or sections, some essential, others special and peculiar to the most elaborate and solemn documents. A deed of the more elaborate character is made up of two principal divisions: 1. the Text, in which is set out the object of the deed, the statement of the considerations and circumstances which have led to it, and the declaration of the will and intention of the person executing the deed, together with such protecting clauses as the particular circumstances of the case may require; 2. the Protocol (originally, the first sheet of a papyrus roll; Gr. πρῶτος, first, and κολλᾶν, to glue), consisting of the introductory and of the concluding formulae: superscription, address, salutation, &c., at the beginning, and date, formulae of execution, &c., at the end, of the deed. The latter portion of the protocol is sometimes styled the eschatocol (Gr. ἔσχατος, last, and κολλᾶν, to glue). While the text followed certain formulae which had become fixed by common usage, the protocol was always special and varied with the practices of the several chanceries, changing in a sovereign chancery with each successive reign.

The Invocation, Superscription, Adress, etc.

The different sections of a full deed, taking them in order under the heads of Initial Protocol, Text and Final Protocol or Eschatocol, are as follows:

The initial protocol consists of the Invocation, the Superscription, the Address and the Salutation.

1. The Invocation, lending a character of sanctity to the proceedings, might be either verbal or symbolic. The verbal invocation consisted usually of some pious ejaculation, such as In nomine Dei, In nomine domini nostri Jesu Christi; from the 8th century, In nomine Sanctae et individuae Trinitatis; and later, In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. The symbolic form was usually the chrismon, or monogram composed of the Greek initials ΧΡ of the name of Christ. In the course of the 10th and 11th centuries this symbol came to be so scrawled that it had probably lost all meaning with the scribes. From the 9th century the letter C (initial of Christus) came gradually into use, and in German imperial diplomas it superseded the chrismon. Stenographic signs of the system known as Tironian notes were also sometimes added to this symbol down to the end of the 10th century, expressing such a phrase as Ante omnia Christus, or Christus, or Amen. From the Merovingian period, too, a cross was often used. The symbol gradually died out after the 12th century for general use, surviving only in notarial instruments The Superscription. and wills.

2. The Superscription (superscriptio, intitulatio) expressed the name and titles of the grantor or person issuing the deed.

3. The Address. As diplomas were originally in epistolary form the address was then a necessity. While in Merovingian deeds the old pattern was adhered The Address. to, in the Carolingian period the address was sometimes omitted. From the 8th century it was not considered necessary, and a distinction arose in the case of royal acts, those having the address being styled letters, and those omitting it, charters. The general form of address ran in phrase as Omnibus The Salutation. (or Universis) Christi fidelibus presentes litteras inspecturis.

4. The Salutation was expressed in such words as Salutem; Salutem et dilectionem; Salutem et apostolicam benedictionem, but it was not essential. Then follows the text in five sections: the Preamble, the Notification, the Exposition, the Disposition and the Final Clauses.

5. The Preamble (prologus, arenga): an ornamental introduction generally composed of pious or moral sentiments, a prefatio ad captandam benevolentiam which facit ad ornamentum, degenerating into tiresome platitudes. It became stereotyped at an early age: in the 10th and 11th The Notification. centuries it was a most ornate performance; in the 12th century it was cut short; in the 13th century it died out.

6. The Notification (notificatio, promulgatio) was the publication of the purport of the deed introduced by such a phrase as notum sit, etc.

7. The Exposition set out the motives influencing the issue of the deed.

8. The Disposition described the object of the deed and the will and intention of the grantor.

9. The Final Clauses ensured the fulfilment of the terms of the deed; guarded against infringement, by comminatory anathemas and imprecations, not infrequently of a vehement description, or by penalties; guaranteed the validity of the deed; enumerated the formalities of subscription and execution; reserved rights, etc.

Next comes the final protocol or eschatocol comprising: the Date, the Appreciation, the Authentication. It was particularly in this portion of the deed that the varying practices of the several chanceries led to minute and intricate distinctions at different periods.

10. The Date. By the Roman law every act must be dated by the day and the year of execution. Yet in the middle ages, from the 9th to the 12th century, a large proportion of deeds bears no date. In the most ancient charters the date clause was frequently separated from the body of the deed and placed in an isolated position at the foot of the sheet. From the 12th century it commonly followed the text immediately. Certain classes of documents, such as decrees of councils, notarial deeds, etc., began with the date.

The usual formula was data, datum, actum, factum, scriptum. In the Carolingian period a distinction grew up between datum and actum, the former applying to the time, the latter to the place, of date. In the papal chancery from an early period down to the 12th century the use of a double date prevailed, the first following the text and being inserted by the scribe when the deed was written (scriptum), the second being added at the foot of the deed on its execution (actum), by the chancellor or other high functionary. From the Roman custom of dating by the consular year arose the medieval practice of dating by the regnal year of emperor, king or pope. Special dates were sometimes employed, such as the year of some great historical event, battle, siege, pestilence, etc.

11. The Appreciation. The feliciter of the Romans became the medieval feliciter in Domino, or In Dei nomine feliciter, or the more simple Deo gratias or the still more simple Amen, for the auspicious closing of a deed. In Merovingian and Carolingian diplomas it follows the date; in other cases it closes the text. In the greater papal bulls it appears in the form of a triple Amen. Benevalete was also employed as the appreciation in early deeds; but in Merovingian diplomas and in papal bulls this valedictory salutation becomes a mark of authentication, as will be noticed below.

12. The Authentication was a solemn proceeding which was discharged by more than one act. The most important was the subscription or subscriptions of the person or persons from whom the deed emanated. The entry about authentication is here.


The necessity of conforming to exact phraseology in diplomas and of observing regularity in expressing formulas naturally led to the compilation of formularies. From the early middle ages the art of composition, not only of charters but also of general correspondence, was commonly taught in the monasteries. The teacher was the dictator, his method of teaching was described by the verb dictare, and his teaching was dictamen or the ars dictaminis. For the use of these monastic schools, formularies and manuals comprising formulas and models for the composition of the various acts and documents soon became indispensable. At a later stage such formularies developed into the models and treatises for epistolary style which have had their imitations even in modern times.

The widespread use of the formularies had the advantage of imposing a certain degree of uniformity on the phrasing of documents of the western nations of Europe. Those compilations which are of an earlier period than the 11th century have been systematically examined and are published; those of more recent date still remain to be thoroughly edited. The early formularies are of the simpler kind, being collections of formulas without dissertation. The Formulae Marculfi, compiled by the monk Marculf about the year 650, was the most important work of this nature of the Merovingian period and became the official formulary of the time; and it continued in use in a revised edition in the early Carolingian chancery. Of the same period there are extant formularies compiled at various centres, such as Angers, Tours, Bourges, Sens, Reichenau, St Gall, Salzburg, Passau, Regensburg, Cordova, etc. (see Giry, Manuel de diplomatique, pp. 482-488).

The Liber diurnus Romanorum Pontificum was compiled in the 7th and 8th centuries, and was employed in the papal chancery to the end of the 11th century. Of the more developed treatises and manuals of epistolary rhetoric which succeeded, and which originated in Italy, the earliest example was the Breviarium de dictamine of the monk Alberic of Monte Cassino, compiled about the year 1075. Another well-known work, the Rationes dictandi, is also attributed to the same author. Of later date was the Ars dictaminis of Bernard of Chartres of the 12th century. Among special works on formularies are: E. de Rozière, Recueil général des formules usitées dans l’empire des Francs (3 vols., Paris, 1861-1871); K. Zeumer, Formulae Merovingici et Karolini aevi (Hanover, 1886); and L. Rockinger, Briefsteller und Formelbücher des 11 bis. 14 Jahrhunderts (Munich, 1863-1864).(1)


Notes and References

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica (1911)

See Also

Further Reading

General treatises, handbooks,, &c., are J. Mabillon, De re diplomatica (1709); Tassin and Toustain, Nouveau Traité de diplomatique (1750-1765); T. Madox, Formulare Anglicanum (1702); G. Hickes, Linguarum septentrionalium thesaurus (1703-1705); F. S. Maffei, Istoria diplomatica (1727); G. Marini, I Papiri diplomatici (1805); G. Bessel, Chronicon Gotwicense (De diplomatibus imperatorum ac regum Germaniae) (1732); A. Fumagalli, Delle istituzioni diplomatiche (1802); M. F. Kopp, Palaeographia critica (1817-1829); K. T. G. Schönemann, Versuch eines vollstandigen Systems der Diplomatik (1818); T. Sickel, Lehre von den Urkunden der ersten Karolinger (1867); J. Ficker, Beiträge zur Urkundenlehre (1877-1878); A. Gloria, Compendio delle lezioni di paleografia e diplomatica (1870); C. Paoli, Programma scolastico di paleografia Latina e di diplomatica (1888-1890); H. Bresslau, Handbuch der Urkundenlehre für Deutschland und Italien (1889); A. Giry, Manuel de diplomatique (1894); F. Leist, Urkundenlehre (1893);

E. M. Thompson, Handbook of Greek and Latin Palaeography, cap. xix. (1906); J. M. Kemble, Codex diplomaticus aevi Saxonici (1839-1848); W. G. Birch, Cartularium Saxonicum (1885-1893); J. Muñoz y Rivero, Manuel de paleografia diplomatica Española (1890); M. Russi, Paleografia e diplomatica de’ documenti delle provincie Napolitane (1883). Facsimiles are given in J. B. Silvestrestre Paléographie universelle (English edition, 1850); and in the Facsimiles, etc., published by the Palaeographical Society (1873-1894) and the New Palaeographical Society (1903, &c.); and also in the following works:—A. Champollion-Figeac, Chartes et manuscrits sur papyrus (1840); J. A. Letronne, Diplómes et chartes de l’époque mérovingienne (1845-1866); J. Tardif, Archives de l’Empire: Facsimilé de chartes et diplômes mérovingiens et carlovingiens (1866); G. H. Pettz, Schrifttafeln zum Gebrauch bei diplomatischen Vorlesungen (1844-1869);

H. von Sybel and T. Sickel, Kaiserurkunden in Abbildungen (1880-1891); J. von Pflugk-Harttung, Specimina selecta chartarum Pontificum Romanorum (1885-1887); Specimina palaeographica regestorum Romanorum pontificum (1888); Recueil de fac-similés à l’usage de l’École des Chartes (not published) (1880, &c.); J. Muñoz y Rivero, Chrestomathia palaeographica: scripturae Hispanae veteris specimina (1890); E. A. Bond, Facsimiles of Ancient Charters in the British Museum (1873-1878): W. B. Sanders, Facsimiles of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts (charters) (1878-1884); G. F. Warner and H. J. Ellis, Facsimiles of Royal and other Charters in the British Museum (1903).

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