Finding family in charters: the brothers Grenoble

Images: above, the church in Thodure photographed in 1908 (Wikimedia commons). Below: BnF Lat. 13879, ff. 18v-19r, Cartulaire de S. Hugues de Grenoble, s. xii, Image shared with permission of Gallica.

The lives and deeds of local priests unfurled within the communities they served, entwined with those of their neighbours, and even more so with those of their family. We can see priests’ relationships with their mothers, fathers, romantic partners, siblings, cousins, in-laws and spiritual kin in local charters, texts recording grants or land or privileges that survive in their thousands from the tenth and eleventh centuries. (If you are new to charters as a historical source, I have a guide to their forms and contents here that may be useful).

Detecting familial relationships in archives held by monasteries and churches is often very easy, since the person writing the charter made them explicit. But consistency is rare across archives, and even within documents – sometimes, for instance, two people might be named in the main text of a charter, and only later revealed to be siblings, parent and child, or more loosely connected in the list of those who confirmed the document; elsewhere people described as relatives in one charter were not in another.

For my first contribution to our project’s ‘priest of the month’, I’ve singled out a pair of priests whose relationship is not made clear. In fact, at first glance the charter – accessible here or here – is a bit of a dead end. Firstly, there are ten people mentioned in the charter, only one of whom (Isaac, the bishop of Gratianopolis, now Grenoble), is attested anywhere else in the written record. Secondly, we do not have the original document, only a later cartulary copy, which makes it more difficult to have a secure sense of when and precisely how the text was first written down. Thirdly, the date of the charter cannot be correct as it stands, and a date of 888-922 is as secure as we can get. Finally, the land being granted is also unattested elsewhere, despite the draftsman’s fairly lengthy description. It is unclear whether we are looking at a donation made to more than one church, or to several, and the churches have not been identified. But based on clues contained within the charter, I think one thing we can show is that the two priests making the donation are brothers.

Here is my working translation of the text:

The holy church/es of God, constructed in honour of the Virgin Mary, and the saints Vincent or Donatus, where the bishop Isaac sits.

Since I, Witger the priest, in the name of God, and Ragambert the priest, have thought of human destiny and the dangers of our fragility. So that God may deign to diminish our sins, and for the soul of our parents, we give to the aforementioned church/es vineyards, fields, forests, trees with fruit and without, streams, springs, water outlets: these places are in the pagus of Grenoble, in the ager of Idrico and Taldubrico (now Thodure, near Isère), and in the places which are called Caramagio (Charamay), Granicas (Grignon), Lavale and Lagorcia.

The boundaries are as follows – on one side it ends at Ouron, on another at Gualaurasione; at Menusiano; and at Malcolino. Whatever within these boundaries we are seen to possess, from both our father or our mother, both that which has been investigated and that which is to be examined, we give to the church. But so long as we both live, we will hold the usufruct of the donated land, and after our deaths, these things will go to the church. They are to receive every year half a modius of wine, to be possessed, maintained or exchanged.

And if there are any of our heirs, or any other man or an intermediary, who wishes to contradict or disrupt this charter of donation, he may not lay claim to it, but let him be culpable and pay five gold coins, and incur the anger of the omnipotent God and all of the saints, and may it remain firm supported by this stipulation.

I, Witgerius, priest, have read over my donation, and subscribe and put it in writing. Ragambertus, priest, subscribes and requests those faithful from both the priests and the laity to witness. Donavellus, priest, having been requested. Ardoynus, archdeacon. Autboldus, head of the school. Gislardus, having been requested. Egegarius, having been requested. Asterius, deacon, having been requested. Barnardus, having been requested. In the second year of the reign of King Louis, in August.

Natalis, notary, having been asked to, wrote this, dated on Tuesday in the month of May.

The evidence for the pair being brothers is as follows:

  1. In many charters, people collectively donate property or land, but it is usually outlined in the boundaries which land belongs to which donor. Here, that is not done, and the text gives the impression that the estate being granted is shared completely, a feature more common when people connected by close familial connections made a grant together.

  2. Even when a grant is made by members of the same family, the structure of charters often records one person making a donation and then another, but here we see the two donating simultaneously within the text.

  3. Most persuasively, when the charter’s scribe outlines how the land has come to be in the possession of the pair, it is described as having come from either their father or their mother.

  4. Although there aren’t a huge number of comparable examples, other charters do survive that record donations made by pairs of brothers who were both priests. Julia Barrow has also shown that what she terms the ‘brother-brother paradigm’ became more and more common as a way for families to manage their estates in the twelfth century, though of course this charter is rather earlier.

I’ve chosen this charter because it is a (relatively) typical example of some of the challenges this project presents, and what we might learn. What it can’t show is whether the pair were local priests or attached to the cathedral chapter: because they appear nowhere else in the cartulary held at Grenoble, we might surmise that they did not occupy important positions in the cathedral community, but beyond that, the evidence cannot take us any further.

Nevertheless, it gives an insight into two areas of my research. Firstly, it shows some of the methodological decisions we have to make when examining such a text: understanding how familial relationships shaped local priests’ lives cannot start and end with explicit references to a sibling, an uncle, or a parent. It cautions against assuming that immediate familial relations were considered sufficiently important or relevant that they would be included in such texts. Secondly, it shows how siblings who had both entered major orders might co-operate in making donations and controlling their property; both Witger and Ragambert retained use of the land after the donation in return for rent.