Government as we recognise it today, a form of public authority functioning continuously and impersonally, first emerged in Western Europe in the twelfth century. One of the cardinal points on which our understanding of this development turns is the evidence of charters: and it is from the twelfth century onwards that charters begin to survive in large numbers. This project focuses on analysing the most distinctive features of charters: the appearance of their handwriting, and the formulaic aspects of their prose as a way to reach a new perspective on the origins of government in its modern western European form.

Royal charters as a new ‘model of authority’

Charters are generally recognised as artefacts of authority: as such, the way in which they were composed and written out must be significant for understanding the authority they represent. During the first half of the twelfth century English royal scribes wrote in an increasingly rapid manner, introducing simplified forms and cursive elements into their handwriting. During the second half of the century and into the thirteenth, they sometimes combined these more rapid traces with various stylistic elements for visual effect, a process that ulitmately culminated in the emergence of a new cursive script. Scottish royal scribes were not far behind in imitating their English counterparts. Non-royal scribes in Scotland as well as England sometimes also followed suit.

The conventional view is that the increasing use of more rapidly-traced handwriting and the development of cursive script can be put down to pressure of business. But was this the only factor? In Scotland there are examples of hurried writing in contexts where there is no evidence for pressure of business. An alternative explanation would be that there was a conscious attempt to mimic the appearance of royal documents, perhaps perceiving them as models of authority: Scottish royal scribes imitated English practice, and then other scribes in Scotland imitated the handwriting of Scottish or English royal documents. The same pattern of influence can be found not just in the handwriting of Scottish charters, but in their prose too. By the early thirteenth century in Britain, a more regularised form of prose was being used, with stock phrases and standardised formulae accompanying the newly emergent cursive script. Yet this emergence of regularised prose and cursive script has not been studied from the perspective of charters as artefacts of authority modelled increasingly on royal exemplars. All this makes the handwriting and prose of charters a significant untapped resource for tracking the increasing profile of kingship as a source of social authority in relation to the growth of government, particularly in relation to property and privileges.

Royal charters and other ‘models of authority’

In this project we plan to track how scribes imitated one another in the incremental process of stylistic change. Royal charters were not the only model available to them: there were also two more formal varieties of handwriting, one little different from the formal bookhand, modified only by the inclusion of a few variant letter-forms, and found most commonly in twelfth-century monastic charters, the other the more styistically elaborate handwriting of the papal chancery, sometimes mediated through episcopal charters. Both were influential on Scottish royal charters. We ask to what extent kingship itself evolved as a model of authority for the way in which non-royal scribes expressed their own property and privileges. This project, by identifying the influence on non-royal charters of practices observed in royal charters, will show how far and when the charter styles of a developing royal bureaucracy dominated the written conceptions of authority of other institutions and individuals in relation to property and privileges. It will also show the effect of other forms of authority – papal and monastic – on the styles of written kingship itself.

Research question:

This new context for examining the emergence of government is encapsulated in the project’s core question: how does kingship as a model of authority in the writing of Scottish charters relate to the emergence of government?

The answers to this question would be revealed by mapping those features that have their origin in royal documents against aspects of handwriting and prose that represent other models of authority in charter-writing during this period. In this way one can be sensitive to the evidence for whether a particular scribe was working for the donor, the beneficiary, or the king. This comparison should then show us at which points in time and in what situations royal authority was taken as a model of authority by those who produced charters.

The results will form a new framework of questions for thinking about the emergence of government. To what extent did a desire for order initially look as much towards ecclesiastical authority as towards kingship? For how long and in what situations did a distinctive modified bookhand and innovative prose – with neither having clear reference to royal or papal practice – most strongly persist? In what types of document was the standardisation of the prose and the emergence of cursive elements in the handwriting most apparent, and how did this relate to procedural changes in the adjudication of property rights? Which came first: greater royal power and bureaucratisation, or a growing espousal of royal authority by those with property and privileges? Were royal models influential in particular situations?

Why Scotland?

Scotland is best placed to be the case-study for four main reasons. First, a collection of 691 digital images of charters has been assembled from a range of medieval archives – an unparalleled resource for a kingdom in this period. Second, the essential task of dating the text of each charter has recently been completed in the ‘People of Medieval Scotland’ database (launched on 5 September 2012): see Third, Scotland’s institutional development in this period has recently been reappraised in Alice Taylor’s monograph The Shape of the State in Medieval Scotland, 1124–1290 (due to be published by OUP later this year or early in 2016). Finally, the corpus of charters is small enough to be manageable but large enough for the results of the analysis of their handwriting and prose to be significant, embracing an entire kingdom.