Charters dating (or purporting to date) from before the Norman Conquest can engender some rather strange reactions among those whose research touches upon them, whether in passing or as a more central plank of their enquiries. On the one hand, some choose to cite supposedly relevant documents without due consideration of whether expert opinion (still) considers the document in question to be authentic or otherwise; this is a particular problem in Surrey with some of the supposedly earliest muniments from the archive of Chertsey Abbey. On the other hand, even a passing knowledge of the complexities of charter analysis and edition can cause others to skirt around the matter whilst making only passing mention to such documents (this was the catalyst for my piece on the “Surrey Fens” causeways I posted recently, for example).
With due care and attention, derived for the most part from the works of scholars (but at the same time remaining mindful of how local knowledge may still be of value), anyone can successfully use relevant charter material in their research and writing. I would recommend readers, especially those from Surrey, try and obtain a copy of Alexander R Rumble’s Place-Names and Their Context (based on a lecture he delivered to the Croydon Natural History & Scientific Society in 1974), as it is the best exposition I have read of the proper analysis of charters and their relationship with fields such as linguistics and archaeology. I bought a copy off Amazon a few weeks back but can’t see another one available to buy – time for a reprint perhaps?
Happily for those who wish to learn more about Anglo-Saxon charters, there is a wealth of excellent websites to not only guide and educate but to provide – for free – virtually all the information one needs for repeated reference in the future. Ever since first having the idea to set up this blog I had in mind to do a post giving the links to the charter-related websites I use time and again, but it was my recent discovery that the best of these had been given an overhaul which spurred me in to putting fingertips to keyboard. The site in question is The Electronic Sawyer, named after Peter H Sawyer, author of the seminal 1968 Anglo-Saxon Charters: An Annotated List and Bibilography. This was a compilation of what was then a comprehensive list of pre-Norman Conquest formal documents deemed to merit the description of a charter (as opposed to a historical work like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, a poem, a liturgical text, etc.) and was first launched online at the end of the 1990s, hosted by the Trinity College Cambridge website where it can still be accessed.
It’s fairly pointless explaining to those unfamiliar with the old version of the website how the new one improves upon it, so an overview of its key features as are to be encountered today will be given instead. The “Instant Sawyer” drop-down search tool is a boon for users old and new who know the reference number of the charter or charters they are looking for; today the standard is the Sawyer (= S) number. Those who do not have a (much-improved) range of browsing criteria by which they can narrow down their desired material. In my experience the Archives index is particularly useful, but others may find groupings like Kingdoms or Charter Date more helpful. On the individual charter pages the links between the lists of published transcriptions and/or translations, as well as works which discuss the document in question as part of a more general theme or argument, and the alphabetised bibliography are now clearer than ever, and allow the user to search back to see all the charters mentioned in a particular book or article. However, the revamp has not stretched as far as correcting one of the major shortcomings of using the site, namely that the vast majority of entries still lack any bibliographical references from the past decade. Updates to the references are promised in the near future, which along with several other improvements should cement the website’s position as the premier online portal for Anglo-Saxon charter research.
The related Kemble website provides more information of the history of research on Anglo-Saxon charters, and especially the ongoing work of the British Academy/Royal Historical Society Joint Committee on Anglo-Saxon Charters. They are overseeing the gradual edition and publication of all Anglo-Saxon charters (and related texts such as papal privileges) one or two archives at a time, most recently those of Peterborough Abbey. Among the future volumes in this series will be one for Chertsey Abbey, which will constitute a major advance for early medieval research in Surrey, and hopefully will offer the final word on the authenticity of the majority of the charters within the archive. I know the editor, Dr Susan Kelly, has completed and circulated a draft of the work for comment by interested parties, but I have yet to see any notice of when publication may be – I fear it may be “forthcoming” for several years to come!
Another archive Dr Kelly has been editing (in collaboration with Prof. Nicholas Brooks) which has considerable relevance to Surrey is that of Christ Church, Canterbury. So large is its archive that it is to be published as a two-volume work; at one stage it was predicted that this would appear in 2010, but midway through the following year and there is still no word of it (admittedly Anglo-Saxon charter websites are not updated on a very regular basis!). Handily, a list of all the edited Christ Church muniments together with transcriptions and translations is already available online – along with most of the other monasteries whose charters have already been published under the auspices of the BA-RHS committee – through the personal website of Cambridge University Anglo-Saxonist Dr Rebecca Rushforth (having been compiled by David Pelteret). They lack the detailed commentaries on the content and authenticity of the documents which is the hallmark of the print volumes, but they still give useful new information that is not presently available via The Electronic Sawyer (e.g. a revised date of S 1222 concerning the gift of East Horsley to Christ Church, Canterbury from “?1036” to “?1017 x 1035”). Whether further additions will be made to the site (e.g. the Chertsey charters) remains to be seen, but for now it represents a useful and rather under-publicised resource.
The above-mentioned Kemble website is named after the pioneer nineteenth-century Anglo-Saxonist (and one-time revolutionary) John Mitchell Kemble. His six-volume Codex Diplomaticus Ævi Saxonici was the first in which most of the known Anglo-Saxon charters were published in a single work. In a similar vein was Walter de Grey Birch’s Cartularium Saxonicum, published in four volumes in the late nineteenth century (and followed up with the Index Saxonicus listing all the persons named in the charters of the Cartularium). The reference numbers for both are often encountered in older reference works (Birch, as B or BCS, more so), and are still used by contemporary authors from time to time. Many times I have Googled these to no avail, but fortunately now they can be searched for using Instant Sawyer. Full pdf facsimiles of Kemble and Birch’s works are available to view or download from a number of websites, for example Internet Archive or Oxford University Computing Services, but should always be used in conjunction with either the print or electronic versions of Sawyer’s successor work. What is more, references to charters should always commence with their Sawyer number; in most cases this alone will suffice – the use of a Birch (or even Kemble) reference on its own in this day and age is highly anachronistic. The one exception to this is if reference is being made to a document which falls outside the scope of Sawyer’s list. An example of this is the papal privilege (of circa 708 x 715) granted by Pope Constantine I to “abbot and priest” Hædda to guarantee the independence of the monasteries at Woking and Bermondsey (= Birch 133; a provisional list of papal letters and privileges is available online here)
Another hugely useful website is ascharters.net, compiled and maintained by Sean Miller (editor of the New Minster, Winchester archive – it was formerly part of his www.anglo-saxons.net site, another helpful resource for things like the chronology and key personages of the period). The site comes into its own for providing full texts of all the charters in the old Electronic Sawyer database, that is to say up to S 1602, a feature that is now being rolled out on The Electronic Sawyer. A similar facility for charters up to the year 900 was offered by the King’s College London web resource ASChart (aschart.kcl.ac.uk), launched in 2005. It had the added advantage of various generic parts of the charter texts (proem, invocation, promulgation place – the terminology can be intimidating at times!) being highlighted, making them able to be cross-referenced with others in various indexes. Unfortunately I have been unable to access the website for several months now, and wonder whether it is still available (alternatively it may just be that it is not compatible with my Mac web browser – I will investigate this further!).
ASChart was part of The Anglo-Saxon Cluster developed between KCL (and in particular their Centre for Computing in the Humanities) and Cambridge University, encompassing four linked web resources. The other three are The Electronic Sawyer, The Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England (PASE), and LangScape. PASE is both extraordinarily interesting and extraordinarily useful but, beyond listing all those Anglo-Saxons who appear in charters and other documents of the period up to 1100, it is not as directly relevant to the study of charters as the other three, and probably merits a separate post in the future to sing its praises.
I would like to say I had the idea for LangScape (“The Language of Landscape”), but in reality I once thought to myself that it would be great if there was a place where all the boundary clauses in Anglo-Saxon charters were listed and explained, and then a matter of weeks later found that academia was several years ahead of me. The site is still a work in progress (bounds contained in charters from archives like Old Minster, Winchester or Glastonbury have still to be added to the database, meaning that the entries for Farnham and Merton in Surrey are of little practical use at present) but what has been achieved so far is of such a high standard that it already ranks as one of the best websites concerning the medieval period in England. For those wishing to pursue an interest in the boundary clauses, most of which are written in Old English, the tutorial function may be of interest. This could be read in conjunction with the list of “Anglo-Saxon charters with Old English bounds” compiled by Keith Briggs, and available to read or download via his website.
I will finish by highlighting the work of Alex Langlands, a PhD researcher at University College London. His Mapping Anglo-Saxon Charters Project page gives an overview of his doctoral research into locating on the ground the implications of Anglo-Saxon charters relating to estates in the Wessex counties of Hampshire, Berkshire, Wiltshire and Somerset (his website also provides a pretty formidable Links page of his own). I am not sure whether he has completed this research, or whether it metamorphosed over time into another research project under his name, “Travel and Communication in the Early Medieval Landscape of Wessex”. Either way this latter project, investigating communications in the period circa 700-1100 as revealed by charter boundary clauses, looks every bit as interesting as the former, and I look forward to learning more about it in the near future. It is projects such as these, utilising Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to take the contents of charters from the page and into the landscape and allow users to manipulate the data for their own research, that will most probably characterise the next generation of web resources on the subject – all in all a most enticing prospect.
The more you search for Anglo-Saxon charters on the internet, the more you come across sites which mention one or a handful of charters relevant to a particular place or locality. There is no mileage in listing them here, for it is easy to conduct a search using the appropriate terms. The links given above should be more than adequate for anyone embarking upon Anglo-Saxon charter-related research to begin with, but if I have missed any site of outstanding relevance and utility please let me know.