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Diplomatic, the science of diplomas, founded on the critical study of the “diplomatic” sources of history: diplomas, charters, acts, treaties, contracts, judicial records, rolls, chartularies, registers, &c. The employment of the word “diploma,” as a general term to designate an historical document, is of comparatively recent date. The Roman diploma, so called because it was formed of two sheets of metal which were shut together (Gr. διπλοῦν, to double) like the leaves of a book, was the passport or licence to travel by the public post; also, the certificate of discharge, conferring privileges of citizenship and marriage on soldiers who had served their time; and, later, any imperial grant of privileges. The word was adopted, rather pedantically, by the humanists of the Renaissance and applied by them to important deeds and to acts of sovereign authority, to privileges granted by kings and by great personages; and by degrees the term became extended and embraced generally the documents of the middle ages.

History of the Study

The term “diplomatic,” the French diplomatique, is a modern adaptation of the Latin phrase res diplomatica employed in early works upon the subject, and more especially in the first great text-book, the De re diplomatica, issued in 1681 by the learned Benedictine, Dom Jean Mabillon, of the abbey of St Germain-des-Prés. Mabillon’s treatise was called forth by an earlier work of Daniel van Papenbroeck, the editor of the Acta Sanctorum of the Bollandists, who, with no great knowledge or experience of archives, undertook to criticize the historical value of ancient records and monastic documents, and raised wholesale suspicions as to their authenticity in his Propylaeum antiquarium circa veri ac falsi discrimen in vetustis membranis, which he printed in 1675.

This was a rash challenge to the Benedictines, and especially to the congregation of St Maur, or confraternity of the Benedictine abbeys of France, whose combined efforts produced great literary works which still remain as monuments of profound learning. Mabillon was at that time engaged in collecting material for a great history of his order. He worked silently for six years before producing the work above referred to. His refutation of Papenbroeck’s criticisms was complete, and his rival himself accepted Mabillon’s system of the study of diplomatic as the true one. The De re diplomatica established the science on a secure basis; and it has been the foundation of all subsequent works on the subject, although the immediate result of its publication was a flood of controversial writings between the Jesuits and the Benedictines, which, however, did not affect its stability.

In Spain, the Benedictine Perez published, in 1688, a series of dissertations following the line of Mabillon’s work. In England, Madox’s Formulare Anglicanum, with a dissertation concerning ancient charters and instruments, appeared in 1702, and in 1705 Hickes followed with his Linguarum septentrionalium thesaurus, both accepting the principles laid down by the learned 301 Benedictine. In Italy, Maffei appeared with his Istoria diplomatica in 1727, and Muratori, in 1740, introduced dissertations on diplomatic into his great work, the Antiquitates Italicae. In Germany, the first diplomatic work of importance was that by Bessel, entitled Chronicon Gotwicense and issued in 1732; and this was followed closely by similar works of Baring, Eckhard and Heumann.

France, however, had been the cradle of the science, and that country continued to be the home of its development. Mabillon had not taken cognizance of documents later than the 13th century. Arising out of a discussion relative to the origin of the abbey of St Victor en Caux and the authenticity of its archives, a more comprehensive work than Mabillon’s was compiled by the two Benedictines, Dom Toustain and Dom Tassin, viz. the Nouveau Traité de diplomatique, in six volumes, 1750-1765, which embraced more than diplomatic proper and extended to all branches of Latin palaeography. With great industry the compilers gathered together a mass of details; but their arrangement is faulty, and the text is broken up into such a multitude of divisions and subdivisions that it is tediously minute. However, its more extended scope has given the Nouveau Traité an advantage over Mabillon’s work, and modern compilations have drawn largely upon it.

As a result of the Revolution, the archives of the middle ages lost in France their juridical and legal value; but this rather tended to enhance their historical importance. The taste for historical literature revived. The Académie des Inscriptions fostered it. In 1821 the École des Chartes was founded; and, after a few years of incipient inactivity, it received a further impetus, in 1829, by the issue of a royal ordinance re-establishing it. Thenceforth it has been an active centre for the teaching and for the encouragement of the study of diplomatic throughout the country, and has produced results which other nations may envy.

Next to France, Germany and Austria are distinguished as countries where activity has been displayed in the systematic study of diplomatic archives, more or less with the support of the state. In Italy, too, diplomatic science has not been neglected. In England, after a long period of regrettable indifference to the study of the national and municipal archives of the country, some effort has been made in recent years to remove the reproach. The publications of the Public Record Office and of the department of MSS. in the British Museum are more numerous and are issued more regularly than in former times; and an awakened interest is manifested by the foundation in the universities of a few lectureships in diplomatic and palaeography, and by the attention which those subjects receive in such an institution as the London School of Economics, and in the publications of private literary societies. But such efforts can never show the systematic results which are to be attained by a special institution of the character of the French École des Chartes.

Extent of the Science

The field covered by the study of diplomatic is so extensive and the different kinds of documents which it takes into its purview are so numerous and various, that it is impossible to do more than give a few general indications of their nature. No nation can have advanced far on the path of civilization before discovering the necessity for documentary evidence both in public and in private life. The laws, the constitutions, the decrees of government, on the one hand, and private contracts between man and man, on the other, must be embodied in formal documents, in order to ensure permanent record. In the case of a nation advancing independently from a primitive to a later stage of civilization we should have to trace the origin of its documentary records and examine their development from a rudimentary condition. But in an inquiry into the history of the documents of the middle ages in Europe we do not begin with primitive forms.

Those ages inherited the documentary system which had been created and developed by the Romans; and, imperfect and limited in number as are the earliest surviving charters and diplomas of European medieval history, they present themselves to us fully developed and cast in the mould and employing the methods and formulae of the earlier tradition. Based on this foundation the chanceries of the several countries of Europe, as they came into existence and were organized, reduced to method and rule on one general system the various documents which the exigencies of public and of private life from time to time called into existence, each individual chancery at the same time following its own line of practice in detail, and evolving and confirming particular formulas which have become characteristic of it.

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. (1) Find out more about diplomatic documents and classification here.


Notes and References

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica (1911)

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