Why Put Artwork All Over Your Document? Querying Illuminated Charters

Why would you want to insert penworked letters, gold-leaf and illuminations on your legal document: company statues, a contract, a grant of land or even an indulgence? This may seem like a waste of time in the modern business context, but in the medieval culture visuals carried their own significance. The messages could be multiple. Look, it’s important, because whoever ordered or produced this document put extra time and materials into it! This document won’t get thrown away, because it’s so beautiful! It’s so rich, it must be authentic. Not to mention the visual shorthand the illuminations would generate for the document’s content. All of which, of course, could be highly misleading, because a forgery can get illuminated just as easily as an original, which I learned through my study of medieval Livonian charters.

Illuminated indulgence at the State Archives in Vienna
Illuminated indulgence at the State Archives in Vienna

But I knew nothing of it when, about three years ago, I saw a call for papers for a conference on illuminated charters, as part of the Austrian project “Illuminierte Urkunden”. I was intrigued by the seeming incongruency of “charters” and “illuminations”, knowing, from my previous experience of Livonian charters, that they seem to be rather plain. Googling up “illuminated charters” lead to a lot of hits, usually in royal, high-status examples, with stunning miniatures and even half-page illuminations in full colour. I was convinced I could find nothing like this in the Livonian material with which I have been working recently, but I still wanted to take up the challenge, just to make sure no hidden treasures were lurking in the local archives.

The study of Livonian charters is complicated by the fact they have been dispersed across several archives, not only on the territory of Livonia, but also in Sweden, Russia, and Poland, not to mention German private archives. Not all of them are digitized or even catalogued in an accessible way. The creation of a single virtual archive for medieval Livonia, like the ones hosted by the Monasterium would save much time for researchers and surely lead to new discoveries, but it would also involve colossal investment in work and resources, not to mention collaboration between different authorities in several countries…

Turaida in 13-16 c. documents

And so I turned to the beautiful and invaluable collection of charters documenting the medieval and early modern history of Turaida Castle (Turaida in the 13th and 16th c. documents), which includes facsimiles, transcriptions, and translations for a wide range of historical document that in one way or another relate to this important Livonian castle. Looking through the pages, I found my holy grail. Not only were there a couple of early examples of penworked initials and grantor’s names in the charters issued by the bishops of Riga, but also there was an absolutely breathtaking – and hitherto little known – sixteenth-century charter documenting property sale, which was tastefully embellished with leafy ornaments and gold-leaf.


As soon as I had my sample put together, I realized I needed the help of an expert in legal history or diplomatics. In fact, illuminated charters can be – and for a long time were – considered exclusively from the perspective of art history or diplomatic studies. This made for a very one-sided picture, though. Luckily, I managed to get hold of a legal historian for this project, so, together, we waded through the murky and dangerous waters of commenting on the development of illuminated charters in Livonia. For this, we needed to navigate not only the Latvian Historical Archives, but also the equally bewildering collection of Livonian documents dispersed across the Warsaw and the Krakow archives, to get hold of the medieval charters. And then, some of them turned out to be medieval forgeries, which is another story for another day…

The easiest part was obtaining a copy of the beautiful sixteenth-century charter for the sale of land, preserved in Lithuania and available in digitized format. It was also one of the more puzzling documents, reflecting the hybrid nature of Livonia at that moment of its history. Written in Church Slavonic, in the then popular demi-uncial script, it shared similarities in its organization, layout and decoration with the eastern Slavic and the western cultures. Studying this charter meant we had to keep in perspective issues in Cyrillic calligraphy, the recent legislation of the Russian Empire, and, of course, the latest tendencies in art.

illuminated charters

But it was only after we presented our work at the conference and began preparing it for publication in the volume Illuminierte Urkunden that we realized that the challenges we faced and the difficulties we have been struggling with, the worries and glorious moments we have experienced are shared by scholars studying illuminated charters all across Europe. From the early medieval examples coming from the Carolingians, to the stunning visual statements that were crafted in the medieval and early modern Georgia. Indeed, when we think about illuminations, charters are not foremost in our mind, which is perhaps just as well. And yet, studying illuminated charters can broaden our understanding not just of medieval artistic culture – it can open up new perspectives in so many fields, from diplomatic relations to spirituality.

Published by thegrailquest

Anastasija Ropa holds a doctoral degree from Bangor University (North Wales), for a study in medieval and modern Arthurian literature. She has published a number of articles on medieval and modern Arthurian literature, focusing on its historical and artistic aspects. She is currently employed as guest lecturer at the Latvian Academy of Sport Education. Anastasija’s most recent research explores medieval equestrianism in English and French literary art and literature, and she is also engaged as part-time volunteer horse-trainer. In a nutshell: Lecturer at the Latvian Academy of Sport Education Graduate of the School of English, University of Wales, Bangor. Graduate of the University of Latvia Passionate about history, particularly the Middle Ages A horse-lover and horse-owner

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