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Legal Practice and the Written Word in the Early Middle Ages: Frankish Formulae, c. 500-1000.

Legal Practice and the Written Word in the Early Middle Ages: Frankish Formulae, c. 500-1000, by Alice Rio. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, Fourth Series. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2009. xii, 299 pp. $99.00 US (cloth).

The scribes of fifth- through ninth-century Francia navigated a legal culture in flux, borrowing at certain times from older Roman practices and at others adapting to emerging administrative and institutional developments. Sources for this shifting legal culture are sparse. Many surviving charters have been shown to be forgeries, and law codes confront the scholar with the perennial problems of prescriptive texts. Alice Rio has thus turned anew to formularies, collections of model documents ranging from land grants to episcopal letters, compiled for the use of scribes. These formulae were based on existing legal texts, but were denuded of identifying features such as names and dates, making them difficult to pin down both chronologically and geographically. Earlier work on Frankish formularies, in particular Karl Zeumer's foundational edition of 1886 for Monumenta Germaniae Historica, concentrated on these problems of time and space, seeking to determine when individual formulae were created and how extensive was their spread in the Merovingian and Carolingian world. In the decades following Zeumer, most historians have treated formularies with a certain amount of wariness, having been assured that their non-specific nature makes the formulae they contain somewhat intractable as source material. Rio takes a different approach, bringing modern concerns with scribal activity, orality, and literacy to the fore with promising results.

Rio's book lays the groundwork for the renewed use of formularies as historical sources. Addressing herself to the nineteenth-century scholarship which has been so influential in shaping the field, Rio argues that determining when, where, and by whom individual formulae were composed is beyond the reach of the evidence. Furthermore, the tendency to regard formulae as "poor cousins of charters," that is, as largely irrelevant in the absence of the rich specific context provided in other documentary sources, misses the point about what formularies tell us (p. 4). Formularies, as collections of texts that were seen as useful examples of what a scribe might reasonably expect to encounter in the course of his work, allow the historian to gain a much broader and more generalized picture of legal culture than can be gleaned from the localized information found in charters or the prescriptive texts of law codes. Formulae provide crucial rare evidence for many situations not documented by surviving charters, as well; here Rio offers a case study which draws on formulary material describing legal acta concerning slavery. She concludes that the range of circumstances outlined in Frankish formulae point to more diverse and flexible conceptions of freedom and bondage in early medieval Francia than scholars have so far assumed.

Initial chapters deal adeptly with the place of formulae amongst other sources for the period, outlining questions of orality and literacy and highlighting the scribal mentality which is so important to Rio's methodology. Here are found the only texts of individual formulae; Rio uses four examples to explore the relationship between charters and formulae. For those looking for complete texts of these formularies, earlier published editions must still be sought out. This is a pity, as Rio's work clearly shows the limitations of these editions and the misconceptions that can easily arise from their use. Her catalogue of the collections, the centrepiece of the book, and the appended handlist of manuscripts must now be an essential companion to their consultation. Closing chapters explore formulae as an historical source, delving into questions of chronological scope, diffusion throughout the Merovingian and Carolingian world, and manuscript survival. A very good appraisal of the relationship between formulae and law codes along with the aforementioned case study on slavery complete the volume.

Those in search of philological information about the texts of formulae will be disappointed, as Rio's concerns lie elsewhere, with broader questions, and she generally treats such details as irrelevant to the thrust of her argument. Those seeking visuals will also find the book wanting; for a study concerned with privileging the manuscript there is a surprising lack of images to complement the analysis. In addition, despite the breadth of the title, the geographical and temporal scope of the book is limited to Merovingian and Carolingian spheres. Rio's approach and conclusions, however, certainly have implications for the study of other groups of formularies. Scholars working with diplomatic materials of the later middle ages, or those concerned with the use of formularies in southern Europe will find much of interest here. Indeed, her treatment of formularies in the contexts of literacy, orality, and scribal activity makes the book methodologically useful for anyone concerned with the production and reception of texts before printing. Alice Rio has produced a volume which both addresses a highly specific and long-neglected body of material and contributes meaningfully to the fields of book history and diplomatics.

Robin Sutherland-Harris

University of Toronto
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Author:Sutherland-Harris, Robin
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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