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Tackling the Archive: Understanding Archival Diplomatics

Daniella Marie Gonzalez | University of Kent

This is the third installment of a series on archival skills and training, designed for early researchers and enthusiasts.

Title Page of Mabillon's De Re Diplomatica
Title Page of Mabillon's De Re Diplomatica


In my previous article ‘Unlocking Palaeography’, I considered the importance of palaeography to medievalists and early modernists, a skill those of us studying pre-modern records need in order to uncover the many stories that these documents tell historians. Palaeography, nevertheless, is just one component of studying documents. Alongside palaeography is the knowledge and application of ‘archival diplomatics’, the term used to describe the study of the content and form of documents. Diplomatic is what historians and archivists can use to authenticate records. Traditional diplomatics have focused on medieval records but the scope of this discipline has been expanded by archivists and can be applied to more modern and electronic records – good news for any modernists reading this piece.

As a postgraduate student in Medieval and Early Modern Studies, I had heard of diplomatic – any medievalist out there will be familiar with Pierre Chaplais’ work English Diplomatic Practice in the Middle Ages – but I had never really considered (or if I’m being very honest fully understood) how to apply diplomatic to the medieval archival records that I was researching. For the research I conducted, I was mainly interested in what the documents could tell me yet, now, as an archivist in training, I can appreciate more and more as to why reliability and authenticity underpin recordkeeping and the examination of records. It is important to ensure we can trust that records are what they claim to be.

The Origins of Diplomatic

Diplomatic has a long and rich history harking back to seventeenth-century France and was established by the French Benedictine Monk Dom Jean Mabillon (1632-1707) in his book De re diplomatica libri VI, which he wrote in 1681. Mabillon is the father of the science of diplomatics and created a methodology from which forgeries could be identified. It is in fact from the French term diplomatique, used in Mabillon’s work that the term diplomatic came into being. For Mabillon, diplomatic was governed by the:

proper evaluation of the character, content, and authenticity of a given document [that] must take account of internal as well as external criteria; of the changing fashions of composition, handwriting, and style … and of the history, personnel and usages of chanceries, notarial offices and scriptoria from place to place and period to period. (1)

At its core, diplomatic is about evaluating the authenticity and reliability of the record that you are dealing with. It’s also a great way to recognise the characteristics of the record before you. This means that you can learn about the form of the record from the paper used, the wax seals attached to it, and even signatures present. We can of course date documents using our palaeographical skills but diplomatic can also inform us about the provenance of the records we research.

In setting out these rules, Mabillon was actually framing a rebuttal against the claim made by the Jesuit Daniel van Papenbroeck of Antwerp that records, namely early grants of privileges, from Dagobert I, king of the Franks (629-634), to the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Pres, were Mabillon himself was based, were untrustworthy. Whilst Mabillon admitted that some of the documentation was indeed false, he argued that not all the records should be dismissed or devalued and, rather, that it was necessary to apply the system that he had devised in order to separate the forgeries from those which were authentic and were what they purported to be.

Because of Mabillon’s methodology, there are specific ways that historians, studying both pre-modern and modern records, can detect forgeries. Cultural anachronisms are certainly something that we can look out for – the individual writing the document may, as Levi Roach has shown, ‘[revert] back to their own accustomed idioms’ from their own society when copying the document – this may cause formulas within documents to change and will be a giveaway for the historian investigating the material. (2) Moreover, examining content is important and the record may have textual inaccuracies, such as erroneous laws or events that did not take place when the documents claim them to have done so. This also includes dates and the individuals mentioned, which we can use to determine the legitimacy of the record’s content. We may also want to refer to other records to corroborate a document’s reliability. Equally as important is the way in which the record was manufactured, as well as the material it was made from and the style of handwriting used (medievalists and early modernists will know that using those palaeography skills is a very helpful way of dating documents!).

When thinking of medieval documents especially, it is important to remember that individuals who forged documents included clerks, who had the right linguistic and technical skills to produce a convincing forgery. The creation of false documents was common in Europe during the Middle Ages and scribes sometimes reproduced records that imitated the original. Records would have also been tampered with. By looking out for these key attributes, the historian will avoid being hoodwinked and have the right tools to uncover the document’s deepest and darkest secrets.

How has Diplomatic Changed Since Mabillon?

The framework established by Mabillon has stood the test of time and remains essential in evaluating the authenticity of records. It is not only historians who are indebted to Mabillon’s work but archivists too have benefitted from this methodology to legitimise original records. This has been a useful technique for European archivists since the seventeenth century. Mabillon’s teachings even made their way into the Ecole des Chartes, founded in 1821.

The definition of diplomatic, nevertheless, has been extended beyond Mabillon’s examination of medieval documents broadened to encompass a greater set of records. A more recent interpretation comes from the Italian archivist Luciana Duranti, who defined diplomatic as:

the discipline which studies the genesis, forms and transmission of archival documents, and their relationship with the facts represented in them and with their creator, in order to identify, evaluate, and communicate their true nature. (3)

Duranti’s interpretation of diplomatic maintains Mabillon’s traditional approach yet allows archivists and researchers to broaden the scope of the records that the methodology of diplomatic can be applied to. When Duranti says ‘archival documents’ she is thinking of Mabillon’s medieval documents and far more.

The practice of diplomatic can thus be extended beyond the realm of the medievalist and applied to far more modern records, including digital data. The scope of how diplomatic can be employed has expanded since the twentieth century, even venturing into the domain of electronic records, re-emphasising this idea first suggested by Duranti.

The types of records found in an archive have diversified and increased over time. The application of diplomatic is indeed universal and does not have to be confined to one’s own specialism. Rather than apply diplomatic to just a type of document, it is of more use to see diplomatic as a ‘coherent science’ that can be employed when determining the authenticity of all types of archival records.

Why is Diplomatic Important for Medievalists?

The impact that diplomatics has had allows for both archivists and historians alike to understand and interpret documents fully. Identifying forgeries and establishing records’ legitimacy allows for the historian and archivist to maintain accuracy and authenticity in their own work.

Chaplais was spot on in arguing that understanding the form of medieval records was vital if we are to truly appreciate the nature of the documentation that survives.


Further Reading

  • Leonard E. Boyle, ‘Diplomatics’ in Medieval Studies: An Introduction ed. James M. Powell (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1992)

  • Pierre Chaplais, English Diplomatic Practice in the Middle Ages (London: Hambledon Continuum, 1981)

  • C. R. Cheney, A Handbook of Dates for Students of British History rev. Michael Jones (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)

  • Luciana Duranti, ‘Diplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science’, Archivaria, 28 (1989), 7-27

  • Levi Roach, Forgery and Memory at the End of the First Millennium (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2021)

  • Don C. Skemer, ‘Diplomatics and Archives’, The American Archivist, Vol. 52, No. 3 (1989), 376-382

  • Caroline Williams, ‘Diplomatic Attitudes: From Mabillon to Metadata’, Journal of the Society of Archivists, Vol. 26, No.

Dr Daniella Marie Gonzalez is a Cataloguer on the Prepare & Move Project at the Parliamentary Archives. She is also the Social Media Fellow for the British Association for Local History, Communications Officer for ARA’s Section for New Professionals and Co-founder and Editor of MEMSLib. She completed her PhD at the University of Kent in 2020 and researches the history of medieval London, focusing particularly on political language and civic records. Dr Gonzalez is currently undertaking a qualification in Archive Administration from Aberystwyth University and is pursuing a career as an Archivist.

Twitter: @DeeGonz92


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