Even though illuminated charters are a European phenomenon, they haven’t drawn much attention up to now from historians and art historians. Relevant medieval documents are still extant from the Byzantine Empire, Southern Italy, the Iberian Peninsula, England, Scandinavia and Russia, with a hotspot of the tradition in England, Central Europe and Italy. Supranational institutions such as the chanceries of the Holy See and the Holy Roman Empire seem to have an important share of the development of this diplomatic genre.
The proposed project will try to describe the position of illuminated charters in the context of the general production of charters and book illumination in medieval Europe. It will analyse individual acts as well as major groups of charters in order to explain why charters were backed with decoration.
As legal documents they do not require any artistic features in order to gain legal force and validity. Yet those who commissioned the engrossment of an act were certainly aware of the fact that the make-up of the document and its external elements had a certain impact on the beholders. Illuminated charters are legal texts and works of art at the same time, thus offering the chance to identify the concrete context of their production precisely: Usually, they name the institutions and persons involved in the legal act as well as the place and time, where and when they were drawn up. It may also be assumed that their decoration was added immediately after the text was written. Because research into medieval works of art usually lacks this information, the proposed project will help to make general assumptions in art history more precise.
The lack of broader scholarly interest in the topic seems to be due to the fact they the relevant sources are scattered over Europe and systematic search is difficult. . Moreover, diplomatists and art historians often lack major expertise in the neighbouring field of research, leaving findings of single-discipline studies scarcely uncontested. The planned project shall tackle some of the above mentioned problems: being based on the cooperation of an interdisciplinary team of art historians, diplomatists and specialists in digital humanities it will address a broad scientific community and establish the research topic within an international network of scholars. It aims at the publication of an online catalogue of illuminated charters in the repository of monasterium.net, the largest European web portal for medieval and early modern charters. Within this framework the project shall develop new IT tools necessary for specific search strategies supporting the description of the documents with the help of semantic web technologies and implementing automatic pattern recognition tools.
The documentation of the charters, their thorough description and scholarly interpretation will provide vast commented source material for further interdisciplinary studies. By its integrative methodical approach the project will not only contribute to the diplomatic and art historical fields of research but deliver new insights into a common European cultural phenomenon.