Quantifying Witness Lists – An approach doomed to fail

The following is a short paper prepared for a course. Since I was not able to further elaborate on it and put more material around, it remains a miscella with no specific claims.

The Witness Lists of the Cartulary of Holy Trinity, Aldgate

Research concerning persons, especially such dealing with masses of persons, often refers to the use and the possibilities offered by information and computational technologies: Faster re­search and more intriguing results are said to be possible. Through digitization and quantifica­tion more efficient and more precise work by historians ought to be possible. This paper seeks to test these promises by applying quantificational (factive) analyses on a collection of documents of Holy Trinity, Aldgate (London).


Witness lists offer the possibility to use an analysis based on quantification. For example it can be useful to distinguish how many witnesses were “needed” for a certain type of docu­ment, if any, and what changes occurred to this type over time. By looking solely at measura­ble fac­tors, I try to find as many possible conclusions that could be compared to results gained by close reading of similar sources. The danger of conclusions based on misinter­preted data is here willingly accepted and a test to check out approaches that are mostly neglected in the field of historical studies. Besides focusing on the use of wit­nesses in medieval documents, the methodology applied is of interest.

The questions posed in this paper are therefore threefold:

  1. How often and in what types of documents did witnesses occur in the cartulary of Holy Trin­ity abbey, Aldgate?
  2. What conclusions regarding typological as well as temporal patterns can be reached?
  3. How useful is the methodology in order to gain insights about matters of document produc­tion and connection between appearances of witnesses, date of document production, and types of documents?

The idea is to neglect the “content” of the entries in order to not be influenced by biases such as how much and what witnesses are to be expected when.

In order to have a quantifiable sample, I chose to analyze the documents copied in the cartu­lary of Holy Trinity. Due to the fact that the cartulary is available in a normalized English form and following a standardized description it is possible to structure the entries as data accordingly and without great effort (linguistical and paleographical). The structuring as well as the ba­sics of the documents will be explained in part 3. Part 4 deals with insights gained by the ap­plied methods. Part 5 offers conclusions as well as a critique of the methods applied, but first a short introduc­tion about Holy Trinity and its cartulary.

Holy Trinity and its Cartulary

Holy Trinity, Aldgate (also called Christ Church) was one of the most important monasteries within the city of London. Founded in 1108 by Queen Matilda (c. 1080—1118), secular can­ons following an Augustinian rule inhabited the site until its dissolution in 1532.[1] Since the founda­tion a strong connection to King and Queen as patrons can be found. Right at the beginning the endowments were invested heavily in buildings, vestments, and other objects of display, lead­ing to a scarcity of food and an involvement of the locals at Aldgate by donat­ing bread to the can­ons.[2] Foremost in London was land acquired and rented to citizens. There­fore most of the in­come stemmed from the city and was only partially augmented by revenues from out of town.[3] Until the dissolution in the 16th century, starting around 1290, the income of the monastery increased.[4]

Detail of structured document, containing seven entries of the cartulary

Figure 1: Detail of structured document, containing seven entries of the cartulary

The cartulary is one of the main sources for the economic and political history of Holy Trin­ity. In the 18th century the manuscript was edited and partially printed.[5] The edition in 1971 by Hodgett follows this tradition and treats the manuscript as a trustworthy collection of docu­ments in possession of the monastery.[6] The production of the cartulary itself is only given a lim­ited account. Although time (between 1425 and 1427) and scribe (Thomas de Ax­bridge) are known, it’s not asked what the reasons for the production of the cartulary could have been, and why the documents were ordered by parish. Similarly, it is not asked, why after the 13th century fewer and fewer documents were copied into the cartulary.

Without being able to consult the manuscript, it is hard to judge what reasons do stand be­hind the production in the 1420. The order of documents suggests connections between the cartu­lary and book of accounts. Bringing together the scattered documents of a parish in one place. Due to the fact that even summation (aggregation) were part of every parish-entry, it’s highly likely that the book was needed in order to defend or execute entitlements. This would explain the differ­ent types of documents and some of the frequencies (outlined below in figure 3).[7] Yet, these are only assump­tions that need further research.

In order to produce a distinct nomenclature in this paper, a “document” refers to the docu­ment that was copied into the cartulary. “Entry” is a part of the cartulary, i.e. a document, but also the notice (similar to a chronicle), or a summation. “Manuscript” meanwhile describes the cartulary as a book.

Structures of the documents – structuring the cartulary

The basis of this analysis is the edition by G. A. J. Hodgett published in 1971. This edition of the cartulary was digitized by British History Online[8] “a digital library containing some of the core printed primary (…) sources for the medieval (…) history of the British Isles.”[9] Most parts of the edition by Hodgett do not consist of full-text transcriptions but modernized and standard­ized summaries of the documents copied into the cartulary. The cartulary itself, as mentioned above, is not executed by the editor, and thus every copy is treated as a sin­gle entry referring to the document that should have existed at the time of the produc­tion of the cartulary.[10] Each entry is numbered,[11] followed by time of production (or time frame if un­sure), and a typological classification.[12] There are many types of documents and sometimes overlap­ping: Grants appear most often, followed by lists of those paying (quit) rents, notes, and summation of parishes.[13] Subsequent to the type of the char­ter follows a description of the act that was attested by the document, outlying the legal act, the involved parties, as well as the amount of money that was part of the agreement. Due to the goals of this paper that parts have been almost entirely ignored. Of far more interest are the lists of witnesses attached to the description of the documents. Although often shortened in cartularies, it seems as if this prac­tice was not followed in Holy Trinity. While this is obviously beneficial for the present study, we still wonder why the witnesses were copied.


Figure 2: Quantity of entries in cartulary by year.

In order to work with the available material, a structured document was created that can be searched and interpreted using so called “regular expressions”.[14]

Of the 1073 entries contain at least 366 entries one witness. Subtracting the entries of the summations of parish totals (84), the lists of those paying (quit) rent (264), and the chronicle en­tries (22), 703 entries could possibly include witnesses.[15] In slightly more than 50 percent (52%) of the entries at least one witness is mentioned.

A charter mentions on average 3.65 witnesses (if witnesses are in it at all). Of the 1336 witnesses in the cartulary, about 1080 of those are mentioned only once as wit­nesses: 134 appear twice or more.[16]

The use of the structured document appears to be useful in order to determine how many wit­nesses to expect. Therefore it is possible to determine that as a maximum 18 witnesses were listed (in 1193),[17] whilst several entries only name one witness.[18]

Not counted were entries mentioning an undefined number of witnesses (like “and further noble­men”).

The distribution of charters over the years within the cartulary shows that most entries were written between 1147 and 1272. Some years dominate the entries in the cartulary, for reasons that might have to do with the fact that in case of uncertain dating (i.e. postquam dating) the earliest possible date was taken.[19] No differences were made between dates vali­dated with cer­tainty compared to dates only assumed. On average almost 1.06 dated entries can be found in the cartulary per year.[20]

In order to fully understand the appearing witnesses (especially its shifting quantities) it is neces­sary to describe all entries of the cartulary in a similar manner, leading to a typology that was assumed by Hodgett’s edition (and of course a strong point of attack).

Although several checks and controls were conducted there still will be errors in the 3945 lines of the structured files, a caveat to relativize all conclusions to come.


Figure 3: Distribution of types of charters, including containing witnesses.

The typology of different charters demonstrates that mostly grants were copied into the cartu­lary. Lists of those paying (quit) rents does make the second largest part (together with the grants more than 80 percent. The fact that mostly grants were witnessed is very intri­guing, since it makes claims about the nature of grants possible and strengthens the presupposi­tion that the transmission of grants was one of the main goals of the production of the cartulary.[21] Combined with the appearance of entries of summation and lists of leasehold­ers a system of accounting becomes most likely a “background” of the cartularisa­tion. Regarding the distribu­tion of entries containing witnesses it becomes obvious that no type of document with certainty needed the involvement of named witnesses.[22]

Applied Quantifications – What the Numbers Tell

The next question to tackle concerning the witness lists deals with the distribution of wit­nesses per entry per year, in order to be able to tell whether there was a shift in pure quan­tity of wit­nesses listed in the documents.

Every dot in figure 4 symbolizes the number of witnesses in a given document in a particular year. Looking for patterns it becomes obvious that no development towards a more standard­ized number of witnesses per document can be stated over the long run. On the contrary, alt­hough two or three witnesses seem to become rather “normal” at the end of the 12th century, around 1300 the diversity grows again (maybe also due to the fact that the sam­ple around that time gets thinner). Also between 1190 and 1280 a lot of documents were pro­duced, naming either more witnesses than the two or three, or even less by nam­ing just one. The one witness-entry is only a frequent option between 1215 an 1250, which diminishes at the turn of the 14th century.

Further insights are promised by the analysis of three factors at the same time: date – type – and quantity of witnesses (figure 5). The regular connection between witnesses and grants be­comes once again obvious. As already demonstrated in the typological comparison, grants do mostly come with witnesses (more than 88% of the documents). And they do so steadily over time. Although usually containing about three witnesses, peaks and lows aren’t missing and no connection between time frame and quantity (concerning peak and low) can be found. Concern­ing the overall quantity of witnesses in the documents, there is no pattern or evolu­tion to­wards a consistent quantity detectable, not even for certain types of documents. A tendency towards three or four witnesses on average per grant can perhaps be found between 1230 and 1280.

Figure 4

Figure 4: Distribution of Witnesses by year per document. Grey cross lines stand for two witnesses. The figure is to scale.

For the same time period is also a concentration detectable on using witnesses only in grants (ex­cept for two leases and one release). Before as well as after the time frame the variety of types was broader, although not consisting of the same types of documents before and after. Whereas before, types such as “confirmations”, “letters”, and a “release” can be found, in the later period one “acquittance”, “quitclaims” and others can be stated. In both periods (before 1230 and after 1280) occurred witnessed “exchanges”.

Patterns in Documents produced in the same time – an excursus

Due to the fact that certain years appear more often as dates of entries, the likelihood of pat­terns in appearing witnesses are higher. And analyzing the entries of 1222 (or rather post 1222) shows that certain people and even identical or almost identical combinations of peo­ple appear (42 entries containing witnesses): 7 documents were witnessed solely or accompa­nied with not more than one other named witness by Gilbert Fulc (or “son of Fulk”). Even more intri­guing is the appearance of a combination of witnesses in the same year: William de Alegate, Ralph his brother, Stephen the Tanner, Terricus, Bartholomew (also a brother of William) ap­pear among others (and twice in a different sequence) in 9 entries.

Similar to the insights of McKitterick for Saint Gall, it can be stated that in 13th century Lon­don witnesses were denominated (at least partially) in groups.[24] Due to the fact that the char­ters cannot be dated exactly, it remains questionable whether the issuing of the char­ters happened at the same date or whether the same group was called up on different dates.

Interestingly, the same cannot be concluded for the documents dated 1197 (or rather post 1197). In this group of documents only 3 persons appear more than once.[25] In the same pe­riod it’s also conspicuous that a majority of people with a clerical background are listed as witnesses (es­pecially in comparison to the group of 1222).[26]

Quantifying Witness Lists: a Conclusion and a Critique

The idea of this project was to rely solely on gained “data” (rather than information) of the cartu­lary’s digitized version in order to test how far and in what directions a quantitative analysis could lead. The results are biased:

No constant patterns of when how many witnesses were present in order to produce a char­ter was found. Neither is there, barring grants to a certain degree, a type of document identifiable that had to have witnesses mentioned. Except for the period between 1230 and 1280 there is no evolution or stream-lining of documents detectable. But interestingly right at the beginning of this period, a pattern of groups of witnesses can be stated. These two percep­tions united could belong to an attempt to produce documents a certain way using a certain group of peo­ple. Or it could be a sign of the influence claimed by a certain group in the 1220ies and 1230ies. Between 1222 and 1248 Richard was prior, right at the time that “the greatest business activity took place”[27] according to Hodgett.[28]

These conclusions make two points obvious: A quantitative analysis only makes sense if compared and enhanced with further perspectives that can’t be gained from pure num­bers. Second, one of the main problems of this paper remains or gets even aggravated: The cartu­lary stands like a semi-translucent curtain between the documents and the historian. The uncer­tainty of what is trustworthy and what not remains.[29] For example, the re­peated occurrence of the same group of people could indicate a forgery.

Figure 5

Figure 5: Representation of quantity of witness – type – and time of production. The charter (years) is not to scale! The average value is taken if the same type appeared more than once in one year.

Nevertheless, depictions and quantifications might help to approach questions of why and how witnesses were “used” in documents (and further in medieval societies). Dealing with quantifica­tions might help to detect patterns and modifications that would have gone unno­ticed in close reading. Comparisons are more easily feasible and hone our approaches to differ­ent institutions and settings. Though, of course a wider array of data needed to be collected in order to be able to make more sustainable arguments.

[1] A short introduction to the monastery, its history, and its economic standing is given in the introduction of the edition: Hodgett, G. A. J.: The Cartulary of Holy Trinity, Aldgate: London Record Society 7 (1971), pp. xi-xxi, here: xiii-xvi. The site of the monastery was before its foundation already inhabited by canons, see ibid, p. xiii.

[2] Without having indepth insight, one could argue that this was not done due to the scarce endowment but in order to popularize the newly established monastery. Following the narrative of the scarcity: Ibid, p. xiv.

[3] Ibid, xvi, Hodgett estimates that 60 percent were income from the city. One of the neglected sources of incomes were coming from churches collated to Holy Trinity, cf. Ibid, xvii.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, xi.

[6] Hodgett claims that the scribe of the book (Thomas de Axbridge) was not negligent but partially ill informed.

[7] See Figure 2, p. 6.

[8] Hodgett: The Cartulary of Holy Trinity, Aldgate: London Record Society 7 (1971). URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=64000 [accessed: 15 October 2013].

[9] Cited after self-description: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/Default.aspx [accessed 2013-10-15]. The ressource was created and is maintained by the Institute of Historical Research and the History of Parliament Trust.

[10] Except for page breaks of the cartulary that are mentioned within the documents.

[11] Numbers run from 1 to 1073, baring an appendix.

[12] The classification is only partially stringent, since some of the charters were described rather than classified in length.

[13] As mentioned above (see page 1), the main goal of the cartulary might have been a more severe control of the dues, thus understandably the mentioned parts occur the most often. A list of the most frequent types of documents is to be found in figure 3.

[14] The document is in XML, a markup language that does not define the interpretation of the used tags but demands for a strict hierarchy. The style of the structure is close (but not according) to the quasi-standard of TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) for the structured encoding of texts (especially editions): http://www.tei-c.org/index.xml [accessed: 2013-10-15].

[15] The subtracted entries were either never produced as charters and appear in the cartulary for the first time (such as chronicle entries and summations of parishes), or are traditionally not known to have contained a witness list (such as lists of those paying rents etc.).

[16] There is an uncertainty in these numbers because they were collected by comparison of names, independent of the time of their appearance, thus it is possible, that persons were counted as identical because they had had the same name. Further it is also possible that persons appeared several times as witnesses but were counted as distinct persons, since the spelling of their name varied greatly (small variations were taken into consideration if possible) and/or they were only called by their first name.

[17] Entry n° 270, a grant of Jordan to Holy Trinity.

[18] To be found in the years 1087, 1135, 1136, 1170 (twice), 1180, 1197 (twice), 1215, 1222 (eleven times), 1223, 1228, 1231, 1241, 1243, 1247, 1250 (twice), 1252, 1270, 1303, 1308, as well as five undated entries.

[19] 1222 is mentioned in 45 entries, 1170 in 41, 1197 in 28. The postquam dating could refer to: 1170, assassination of Thomas Becket; 1222, council at Osney.

[20] The average per year is 1.05974 (all years considered).

[21] In this regard a comparison of grant holders and lease paying people could be very fruitful.

[22] „Sales“ and „quitclaims“ do always contain named witnesses, but since they only appear in small numbers, the conclusion would not be steady. There is also no pattern to be found in the grants not containing witness lists.

[23] Grey cross lines stand for two witnesses. The figure is to scale.

[24] McKitterick, Rosamond: The Carolingians and the written word, Cambridge 1989, pp. 98-103.

[25] Roger, the chaplain of St. Edmund (twice); Robert, the chaplain (five times); John, chaplain of St. Michael.

[26] In the group of 1197 slightly more clericus than laicus can be found, whereas in the group of 1222 less than a handful clericus appear.

[27] Hodgett, Cartulary, p. xv.

[28] Assuming this is correct, that means that not the biggest spikes in the production of documents could point to such activity but rather a steady production.

[29] Similar to the observations of: Geary, Patrick J.: Phantoms of remembrance : memory and oblivion at the end of the first millennium, Princeton 1994, pp. 112-114.


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