Dating Provençal Charters: It’s A Complete Mess

Yesterday I spent an afternoon matching up charter dating clauses. “Sounds like fun!” you say? Eh, well, at least the results were interesting. But, what do I mean by ‘matching up charter dating clauses’? Well, I’m still looking at mid-century Provence. Charters from this region are usually dated by the regnal year of the king, in this case Conrad the Pacific. Sometimes, you can’t do much with that – a charter dated ‘3rd May, in the 7th year of the reign’ can’t be checked against anything. But, sometimes there’s more – there’s a day of a week, an indiction (a separate dating system left over from the Roman tax administration), or even an anno Domini date! So with a dating clause which says ‘Tuesday, 3rd May, in the 7th year of the reign’, you can look at in which years the 3rd May is a Tuesday, and work backwards from there to see when people thought the reign started. And that’s what I was doing: trying to work out when people thought Conrad the Pacific had begun to be king in Provence. Now, in Burgundy, Conrad succeeded his father in 937, and we can see him in action in Provence for the first time in 943 – so are either of these dates used?

Ha, ha, ha. I wish it were that simple. Over the course of yesterday, I found charters which appeared to begin the reign in every year from 931 to 948 except 932 and 947. Some of these dates are clearly the result of people not using the indiction correctly: comparing the indiction and the regnal year on these two charters – and each has a couple of plausible dates they could mean – you find that they appear to think that Conrad started reigning in 931/946 or 933/948 respectively, dates which are so clearly arbitrary and wrong that they must be the result of simple error.

However, some cases are more complicated. This charter (issued by the Archbishop of Besançon, so not actually Provençal, but that just makes it weirder) is dated Friday, 14th May, in the 25th year of Conrad’s reign. If you look at what years had 14th May on a Friday, the only possible candidate in this case in 969 – but that places Conrad’s reign as beginning in 944. This other charter, written in the same regnal year and dated to Wednesday 3rd June in 963, in the 25th year of Conrad’s reign. As it happens, 3rd June 963 was a Wednesday, so that’s right – but following these elements puts the beginning of Conrad’s reign in 938.

Sometimes, there are a couple of possibilities. This document is dated to Wednesday 22nd November, in the 6th year of Conrad’s reign. This could quite plausibly be either 943 or 948, putting Conrad’s reign as beginning in either 938 or 942; there’s no way of telling.

I could multiply these examples – well, not quite endlessly, but I’ve found about fifty documents where you can do this kind of calculation. The most popular single date is 939, but not by very much, and you find varying dates throughout Conrad’s – very long – reign. (What happened in 939, incidentally? Not a clue. It is unclear to me why exactly you’d be dating from 939…) What this says to me is that no-one knew when Conrad had started to be king. They knew he was their king now, but the absence of a generally-agreed date for the beginning of his reign and the sheer range of variables involved suggests that this was an ex post facto treatment of a status quo which only became quo in the mid-940s. So far, so good – most historians would agree with this and I’m not saying anything new here. But you can go further than that, because what it says about Conrad’s legitimacy as king is that it wasn’t hereditary, and it wasn’t connected to his rule in Transjurane Burgundy (otherwise people would have started to date by his rule there starting in 937). Conrad’s rule in Provence had nothing to do with his father King Rudolf II, but was an outside takeover of a separate political community which continued to see itself as separate.

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