How Many Texts in a Medieval Treaty?

This is not a trick question. As some of you will know, I am currently finalising the manuscript for my second monograph, Law, Treaties and International Relations, c.700-1200, and I have been pondering for a while whether I am using the modern English word ‘treaty’ in a misleading way if what I am actually talking about has more than a single text.

The majority of treaties from the earlier medieval period have no surviving text at all: just in the few sources I have investigated there are more than 600 such instances between 700 and 1200. Then there are those instances where there is a text preserved as a single document, which can take lots of different forms: oaths, laws, partitions, notifications and so on. In a few cases, however, historians of diplomacy have seemingly hit the jackpot and find that there are several documents recording not different versions but rather different aspects of the same agreement.

Louis the German’s oath in the Treaty of Koblenz, 860, from BNF, MS Lat. 9654, f. 81.

One example of this is the Treaty of Koblenz, concluded in 860 between Charles the Bald (k. of west Frankia), Louis the German (k. of East Frankia) and Lothar II (k. of the middle Frankish kingdom later known as Lotharingia). This particular treaty seems to have had five parts – the oath of Louis the German, a short adnuntiatio (announcement) of the peace by Charles the Bald, a longer announcement by Louis the German, and the terms of the agreement. The originals of these various parts do not survive but there are early (by which I mean pre-twelfth century) copies, for instance in the large tenth- or eleventh-century collection of legal materials MS Lat. 9654 preserved at the BNF, Paris (for a good description of content, see http://capitularia.uni-koeln.de/en/mss/paris-bn-lat-9654/). Only very late manuscripts, such as the Vatican Library’s MS Lat. 4982, preserves all five parts of the treaty, with earlier ones often only preserving one or two. For instance, MS Lat. 9654 records only the twelve clauses of the agreement, the witness list, and the oath of Louis the German, while manuscripts containing the treaty as recorded in the Annals of Fulda preserve only the oath of Louis the German.

Announcement of peace concluded at Koblenz by Charles the Bald from MS Vat. Lat. 4982, f. 122.

A number of other ninth-century treaties also had several parts, including the Treaty of Meersen (851), which has the terms of the agreement as well as the announcements of all three parties, and likely also the Pactum Sicardi (836), for which only the terms of the agreement has come down to us but with the headings indicating that oaths once accompanied them. By the time we get into the twelfth century, we usually only see combination of documents for a single treaty in Italy, e.g. in treaties with the Italian city states. Elsewhere, the various parts are often, but not always, compacted into a single document – a treaty, more akin to the modern sense of the word. The fact that there can be several parts, and/or several documents, to a treaty raises lots of questions: What was a treaty in the period 700-1200? Were some treaties, now surviving only as oaths or as lists of terms and conditions, once part of a bigger whole? How were treaties recorded, announced and/or preserved? And many, many more.

Of course, the basic premise of any treaty is the fundamental principle of pacta sunt servanda (‘agreements must be kept’), that an oath properly demanded and properly taken was binding, in whatever form the sworn agreement had been prepared and published. This presents a very practical problem when writing about some of these medieval treaties because when referring to “Treaty XYZ” which has, say, three parts recorded in two different sources, how can I convey to the reader which part(s) I am actually talking about? And what about if two of these parts have clearly discernible clauses and c. 3 of the “Treaty XYZ” could indicate either of these parts or both? I am so confused ☹ And if I am confused, imagine the person eventually reading the book, who has not been working with these documents for years.

Clearly, I cannot resolve all questions surrounding this issue in the book I am currently writing but it has made me pause and think again about the process of translating and editing these treaties, the manuscripts which preserve them, and the textual links between treaties of different geographical regions. Perhaps I’ll attempt the answers more fully in book number three…(Shhh, don’t tell my family!)

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