Peering into the Middle Ages – The Brock University Symposium on Medieval Documents
Brock University in Canada showcased three incredible medieval documents Friday, March 19th, 2010 at a symposium on medieval documents; featuring The Clopton Charter, a sheet of music and a Psalm from the Book of Job. Brock University also received two early modern English documents kindly donated by keynote speaker, Dr. David Caldwell, Keeper of Scotland and Europe and the National Museums of Scotland. A letter signed by King James of Scotland in 1579 and a Scottish legal document from 1490. The symposium was hosted by Professor Andrew McDonald, and professor David Sharron who discovered (and are currently working on) The Clopton Charter.
The university does not know how they came to possess The Clopton Charter. Professor David Sharron discovered the document in the archives on March 25, 2009. It was folded and placed in an archival bag with a note attached stating it was a document from the 16th century. The Charter had no
date on it; Professor Sharron sent a picture of it to Professor McDonald to see if he could provide any insight. Professor McDonald realized the document was far older and the investigative process began immediately. The document, appeared to be from the 13th century. The other two medieval documents had been purchased by the university in the 1960′s.
Professor Andre Basson, a paleography expert, spoke about deciphering the Clopton Charter and shared some interesting points on medieval paleography. The Charter was written on parchment, which indicates that it was an official document. There were various medieval scripts during this period making it difficult to decipher the document. The hand writing style of the Charter was identified as “Gothic Cursive” which was a script used in formal documents between the 12th and 16th centuries. The script conforms to the first half of the 13th century. The Charter is a land grant from Robert de Clopton to his son, William de Clopton.
Professor Angus Somerville of the Department of English, spoke about the Charter and on the topic of digital
progress and its affect on medieval documents. While 90% of the work with manuscripts can now be done online, manuscripts are not “passe” and Professor Somerville asserts there is still a need to see documents in person.
Professor Michael Gervers of the University of Toronto and his DEEDS project team spoke about the dating and digitizing of The Clotpon Charter and other medieval documents. DEEDS (Documents of Early England Data Set) is a computer program produced with statistics that assists in dating undated medieval English documents. The DEEDS project began in 1992/1993. DEEDS uses a machine called D+MECH which dates English charters between 1072 – 1310. During the time of William the Conqueror, the Anglo-Saxon tradition of dating documents ceased. English documents were not dated from 1066 until the reign of King Richard I in 1189. The general public did not begin dating documents until approximately 1307. Professor Gervers and his team demonstrated how the DEEDS project dates these documents.
The program is only interested in word order and sequence and ignores people and place names. An algorithm was designed to come up with possible words in sequence to arrive to a final date. The machine contains 814, 535 word patterns and is able to produce a date for 2 -32 word patterns. The program finds phrases that were used during a particular period of time as certain phrases come and go in popularity. The program looks at the portion of time in which the phrase appears.
How accurate is this process? 48% of the documents were dated to within 5 years, and 15% were exact matches. Professor Gervers had several DEEDS team members explain the statistical process at which they arrive at the final date. They also explained how to search for documents on the DEEDS website. While working on The Clopton Charter, the DEEDS project found another document from Clopton dating to 1238. This document appears to have been written by the same scribe who wrote the Clopton Charter. Another interesting discovery was that the family of Robert de Clopton appeared in several documents up to 1300. Robert had two sons, William and John. John received land in 1250 and in 1258, appeared again in a document for owing money to a Jewish money-lender. The document outlined the terms of repayment.
Professor Brian Power of the Brock University Music Department spoke about the sheet music. It was acquired by the university in August 1967. The sheet is from the Gospel of Matthew from a notated Passional; a Christian liturgical book containing text of the story of the Passion of Christ. The text is written in Latin on high quality vellum parchment and is in good condition; however, the book may be of Spanish origin. The manuscript appears to have been taken from a fascicle or bound book. Professor Power explained the music of this period and demonstrated what the music would have sounded like by singing the Passional.
Special keynote speaker, Dr. David Caldwell spoke about medieval objects and documents and what they can tell us about history. He donated two documents to Brock University’s archives, a Scottish legal document from the 1490′s and a letter signed by King James VI (the future King James I of England) on July 12, 1579. Professor Matthew Martin, Department of English and Director or Medieval and Renaissance Studies, gave a little bit of a background to the rule of King James and the historical context of the letter. James did not write the letter, it was written in secretaries hand. An interesting note is that James’ signature remains the same throughout his reign and his writing is relatively clear, simple and easy to read. The letter grants safe passage to William of Hamilton and outlines the restrictions to his movement and activities. The letter is a business document.
What does the letter tell us about this period in history? The Hamilton clan was banned from being within 6 miles of the King’s body. The letter shows the tension of the time and that the Hamilton’s were deemed a threat to the King’s body, as control of the kingdom was control over the King’s body. The letter still awaits transcription and is still a work in progress.
Dr. David Caldwell spoke about how material culture research can improve Scottish history and the importance of not relying solely on documents as windows to the past. Professor Caldwell went through slides of various objects, such as pendants, grave slabs, badges and statues. He stated it is important to learn from objects as objects can also be “read” as documents.
The symposium was sponsored by The Humanities Research Institute, the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, the Department of History and the James A. Gibson library.