Theses Doctoral

Minds and Margins: Notarial Culture in Bologna, ca. 1250-1350

Kuersteiner, Sarina

From at least the twelfth century, amid the growth of commerce, towns, and universities, notaries charged with the writing of various administrative documents formed an increasingly important professional group in the Italian communes and, later, across the whole northwestern Mediterranean. A large quantity of sources from the late medieval period were written by notaries, including notarial registers, court records, and other administrative books. Unlike modern administrative records, medieval counterparts surprise us with poems that look like contracts, images that have nominal functions, prayers interspersed with the text of the official record, and musical imagery that allows us to compare notaries to musicians.

What do these marginalia betray about the meaning of contractual text and the notaries as their producers?“Minds and Margins: Notarial Culture in Bologna, ca. 1250-1350” is the first interdisciplinary study of notarial registers examining how notarial acts were brought together with poems, prayers, images, and music as they were entered into the registers’ pages by the notaries themselves. It demonstrates that to understand the contents of a quantitatively important source of medieval economic, social, legal, and political history—records written by notaries—we must not only take into account the social and legal-institutional contexts of their production, but also the cultural and religious worlds that shaped the registers and the minds of their makers, the notaries. “Minds and Margins” thus explores how notaries absorbed cultural modes of thought and practice and applied them to their administrative work. Examining poetry, images, music, and prayers in notarial registers—evidence that is not only physically located on the margins, but that has also been marginalized by previous scholars—I argue that notaries were both accountable officials and creators of an ideal urban order, using their culture to define contractual and institutional relationships.

Bologna is at the center of this research because of its wealth of surviving notarial records and its university functioning as medieval Europe’s leading institution for the study of law. Moreover, the density and variety of archival records in Bologna provides the opportunity to draw out the connections notaries forged between the marginalia and their profession.

Chapter 1, “Medicine and Literature in Salatiele’s Ars notarie,” treats notaries’ formation and shows how Salatiele (d. 1280), a Bolognese notary and jurist who maintained a school for notaries, relied on Galenic medical theory and Ovidian verses to theorize notarial instruments and notaries’ professional roles. I argue that Galen and Ovid allowed Salatiele to conceptualize the intellectual underpinnings of commercialization and monetization as ordering principles of the common good. Chapters 2 through 5 observe notaries at work to demonstrate how they used different cultural media to shape documentary principles and practices.

Chapter 2, “Trustworthy Lovers,” examines poems notaries entered into the registers of the Memoriali, a Bolognese office that collected all notarial contracts involving sums of 20 lire. The two textual genres, poems and contracts, contain parallels in their formal and thematic frameworks. I argue that the poems are media by which notaries established for their colleagues and the public their own trustworthiness and ability to write truthfully. Chapter 3, “Signing with Religious Imagery,” examines signs that are analogous to monstrances and other religious objects notaries drew as part of signatures. I argue that in using images of devotional objects as signature signs, notaries were staking a claim to be creators of a quasi-sacred urban order.

In Chapter 4, “The Music of Instruments,” I examine how the experience of music shaped notaries’ perceptions of contracts and their professional self-images. Liturgical chant may have inspired notaries’ reading practices, influencing their manner of reading instruments aloud to the contracting parties. From there, I turn to a broader question of the relationship between musical instruments and notarial instruments. The musical portrait of Zachetus de Viola can be seen as relating his musical skill to his reputation not only as a musician but also as a notary. While the teacher of notarial arts, Salatiele, turned to Galen and Ovid, former students drew on music and musical instruments as models for the social harmony they saw themselves constructing with notarial “instruments,” the technical term used for contracts.

“Contracts,” “court records,” and “registers” are familiar legal terms. “Minds and Margins” argues that to medieval notaries, they could also mean musical instruments or poems—sometimes both at once. By examining the margins of notarial registers, we discover that the contracts, court records, and texts of other notarial acts at the center of today’s state archives in fact took shape out of a much broader cultural context. In this sense, “Minds and Margins” contributes to our understanding of historical margins as places that shaped the center—urban administrations, contractual and institutional relationships—in unexpected ways. The present research urges us to reconsider contractual and administrative principles—too hastily accepted by previous scholars as predecessors of their modern counterparts—through the lens of the minds of those who shaped them, medieval people.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Kosto, Adam J.
Senocak, Neslihan
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 13, 2021