chapter  14
On diplomatics (Jean Mabillon, 1632–1707)
Pages 6

For centuries historians appealed to many kinds of documents without knowing for sure any of them were authentic. Knowledge of how to test authenticity and truthfulness (known as external and internal criticism) was the work of seventeenth-century scholarmonks working in the serene confines of French abbeys. Among them, Mabillon stood out as a revolutionary figure. The greatest scholar of his day, he put objective historical analysis decisively on the map. A precocious student from childhood, he nursed early monastic

ambitions. After study at the University of Rheims, he was ordained in the Benedictine Congregation of St. Maur, which included several abbeys that accepted historical inquiry as a legitimate practice alongside prayer and contemplation. His talent for documentary analysis and historical exposition unfolded at two prominent abbeys near and in Paris-St. Denise and St. Germain-des-Prés. The latter, where he spent the remainder of his life, and where he was buried, was known throughout Europe for its learned men and their scholarly work. Collaboration with that circle gave him access to sources and scholars in Italy and southern Germany as well as in France. Participation in major projects of the abbey developed his analyt-

ical powers. These undertakings included an edition of works by St. Bernard (1090-1153), recognized by peers as a brilliant achievement, and a multi-volume lives of Benedictine saints. The work’s critical methods are explained in prefaces and appendices. A few years before his death, he produced a third set of scrupulous volumes, Annals of the Benedictine Order. The volumes on saints aroused disapproval because he dethroned more than a few due to insufficient or defective evidence. He responded firmly and modestly to complaints

and was vindicated. His landmark work on diplomatics, for which previous undertakings were a training ground, arose from disputes over the authenticity of ancient charters legitimizing the Abbey of St. Denise, doubts he sought to resolve by systematic analysis of documents relating to the abbey’s origin and its succession of abbots (171 f). As a Maurist of high repute Mabillon had access to archives of the

order’s several abbeys and other sources in Europe. At the time Europe was awash in documents, but there were no agreed upon methods for establishing with confidence either authenticity or truthfulness. This was not a trivial matter: “Those who attempt to diminish the authority and trustworthiness of ancient documents and records do harm to the study of literature and … attack and undermine constitutional law, not to mention legal privilege” (164). The latter admonition included legal rights and status of monastic institutions. Historical study was heavily monastic and ecclesiastical in the six-

teenth and seventeenth centuries. Critical methods were formulated in a contentious religious environment. During the sixteenth century Reformation and Counter Reformation, history was a weapon used by Protestants and Catholics to demolish one another’s claims to priority and authority of belief and practice. Both parties ransacked archives in Europe to find incriminating evidence against the rival faith. In neither case were historical materials submitted to objective analysis, and many documents were tampered with or fabricated outright. Reigning purposes were aggressively polemical and partisan. An unintended consequence was the public accumulation of an unprecedented array of materials that could be assessed impartially by others. An “age of erudition” followed from about 1600 to 1750. Scholars

continued to discover and publish long neglected documents from a variety of sources, principally monastic, ecclesiastical, and royal. Differences between these érudits, a designation that applies to Mabillon, and their predecessors were development of critical standards for authenticating documents and a desire to get facts right. The three great names were French-Pierre Bayle (see essay 18 in this volume), Bernard de Montfoucon, and Jean Mabillon. Montfoucon was an authority on the paleography (handwriting,

penmanship) of Greek documents. Mabillon founded Latin paleography and laid a foundation for critical historiography by showing how documents can be authenticated and dated. No one before Mabillon had been able to do that credibly with documents from different time periods. He perfected and codified principles of criticism

begun by Lorenzo Valla (see essay 13 in this volume) capable of revealing the honesty of documents. This science he named diplomatics, from the word “diploma,” referring to a folded piece of paper, but now meaning letters, decrees, charters, and other kinds of documents. De re diplomatica libri VI (On The Study of Documents in Six Books)

formulated principles of external criticism that enabled scholars to validate documents with confidence. Latin paleography, the interpretation of handwriting and written symbols in ancient documents, was a major instrument, based on the fact that alphabetic letters take on different forms from one century to the next and must be interpreted to be read correctly. Scribes made the task of reading more difficult with editorial changes, which require further interpretation. Mabillon also pioneered internal criticism, or systematic analysis and judgment of truthfulness in content. Mabillon’s style reflects a scientific spirit. Unlike Lorenzo Valla, he was sober, measured, fair minded, and objective rather than distractingly polemical and political. While Bayle excelled at detecting individual factual errors with

high probability, Mabillon moved on to discover positive truths about the status of entire documents with high probability. Philosophers and theologians still argued that true knowledge has the property of absolute certainty. By that standard, history was viewed as falling short of logic and mathematics. Mabillon’s methods and principles shifted the balance by dignifying history as a reliable source of knowledge, however tentative, rather than a mere repository of moral lessons and rhetorical pleasures. He viewed history as an empirical science that does not and cannot aspire to “metaphysical” certainty. He believed also that trustworthy history study requires intuition

and experience in addition to tested empirical methods, and that a strong alliance of the three results in “moral certainty”: “ … Beyond a doubt a moral certitude cannot be acquired without long and constant observation of all the coincidences and circumstances which can lead to attaining the truth. In exactly this way the authenticity of spuriousness of ancient documents can be demonstrated” (170). In other words, historical demonstrations are of a different order than logical or mathematical ones, but without loss of soundness or persuasiveness. The six books of De re diplomatica expound principles of textual

analysis and apply them to many ancient examples. Books I and II explain tests by which charters can be judged true or false. In Book I, types of charters are defined and discussed with the conclusion that a document’s age does not count against it since royal charters were issued in the fifth century. Five kinds of materials used for documents are

reviewed, with attention to differences in ink and types of writing. In Book II he addresses the language of documents, showing, like Valla before him, that antiquity and change over the centuries are imprinted in grammar and vocabulary. Five parts of medieval charters are dissected, especially seals, signatures, and different chronologies. The remaining books provide examples of how diplomatic proof

works. Book III looks at an alleged privilege granted to the monastery of Maximin by the Merovingian king Dagobert (seventh century) and finds the document wanting for ten reasons, including a host of anachronisms in the language: “Certainly what I have just mentioned clearly shows that this document of Dagobert either is spurious, or that it is not so undoubtedly genuine that it can or should be presented as a genuine and legitimate example of the other documents” (186). Book V is a compendium of handwriting samples to illustrate paleography, and Book VI offers some 200 documents copied from originals with notes explaining why they may be taken as authentic. Suspicious documents abound, many forged or altered in antiquity

and the middle ages. No category is exempt: “Neither historical works, nor writings of the Fathers, nor decretal letters, nor the records of Councils, nor the lives of the Saints-out of reverence I will not mention Scripture … ” (168-69). Diplomatic analysis to find truth about documents is not possible without a fund of experience. The method of discovery is not abstract: “ … cleverness of mind and reason alone cannot be substituted for it.” This kind of judgment requires time poring over a variety of documents: “ … those who wish to learn the art of criticizing ancient documents must consider themselves experts only after careful and thorough preparation. For it is difficult for someone without experience in this field to give an authoritative judgment about one single document … ” (170). If a forgery is detected by comparing it with an authentic docu-

ment, the question arises as to how one knows for sure the “archetype” is truly authentic and not the work of a forger. Mabillon is fully aware of this argument and how far such skepticism can go to demolish confidence in any document (168). His response is that all features of an authentic document are judged by an expert to be in order. The claim that a forger could get all of them right in a document is hypothetical and improbable. The claim that all documents in every archive could be forgeries is equally improbable and skepticism out of control: “No one ever attempted to do this unless he was a complete novice who had no experience at all with antiquities” (170).