Illuminated Charters – from the Margins of two Disciplines to the Core of Digital Humanities

Among the entire production of acts throughout the Middle Ages, illuminated charters, i. e. legal documents featuring drawn or painted decoration, never had more but a marginal share of the entire production of acts throughout the Middle Ages, yet through their sumptuous external make-up they were undoubtedly adding to the solemnity and publicity of the deeds. In spite of their outstanding and precious character, decidedly remote from the everyday business of issuing charters in princely, ecclesiastic and private chanceries, they are a diplomatic phenomenon common to the whole of Europe.

Considering their ambiguous status as a legal document and a piece of art at the same time, their study challenges skilled historians and diplomatists and able art historians alike. In contrast to illuminated manuscripts whose date can often only roughly be determined, they are usually bearing their precise date of issue, thus offering to experts of book painting extraordinary possibilities of dating and localising artistic production of sometimes remarkable quality.

Whereas the esthetic and decorative aspects of illuminated charters ensured these documents at least from the 19th century onwards an overproportioned appearance in exhibition catalogues, profound scholarly interest in the topic from the viewpoint of history and diplomatic as well as art history remained rather weak or restricted to certain types of relevant sources such as collective indulgences or grants of arms. 

Only during the last years research has become more conscious of the richness and scholarly potential of the topic and the impact of more detailed and broad-scale investigations. Attention was paid to the representative function of decorated charters and the (mutual) engagement of issuer and recipient/beneficiary/commissioner of the act in the process of decoration. On the one hand, any attempt to describe the relation of text and image in order to determine the performative impact of illuminated charters in general remains provisional, due to the wide temporal and regional dissemination of relevant stocks which still require deep-digging exploration of archival holdings and collections of libraries and museums wordwide. With, on the other hand, an ever increasing number of online resources provided by archives and consequently improved research tools as well as new fields of research, studies into illuminated charters prove to be a rewarding topic for the whole range of the Digital Humanities and Digital Diplomatic research area. The use of modern information technologies for structured data creation and archival storage helps to maintain consistency and enables linking between data resources and user defined visualization. Building upon digital tools this aim can be achieved in collaborative virtual research environments.

The forthcoming conference, organised within the project “Illuminated Charters as Gesamtkunstwerk” (, funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF (P 26706) and run at the Institute for Medieval Research of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the Centre for Information Modeling at the University of Graz, aims to take serious the variety of the topic, to bring together the multitude of scholarly attitudes towards illuminated charters and to explore the range of methods applied for their investigation. It is settled at the intersection of diplomatic, art history and Digital Humanities. All relevant paper proposals are welcome, but special focusses are expected to be on:

  • The representative, commemorative and performative function of illuminated charters
  • The involvement of issuer and recipient into the process of drawing up and decorating the acts, specific from case to case
  • Illuminated charters emanating from the papal chanceries or from the environment of the Curia (e.g. collective indulgences) or grants of arms from the imperial chancery as mass phenomena 
  • The application of pattern recognition tools for automatic queries of illuminated charters in databases
  • New (statistical) approaches towards the temporal and regional distribution of different types of decorated acts 
  • Signs of authentication and graphic symbols (esp. notarial signs) displayed by charters as an artistic problem
  • The design of (archival) databases of illuminated charters and similar objects

The conference languages are German and English. The admission of papers in other languages is up to the organisers. Papers should not exceed 30 minutes in length. Please send an abstract of no more than 300 words and a short CV (of five lines max.) with the reference “paper conference illuminated charters” to [email protected][at] by 30 march 2016. Travel and accommodation costs will be reimbursed to speakers by the organisers.