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Chronological Evaluation

The Norman contribution to the administrative history of medieval England is a common place of academic inquiry. A significant result of the Conquest of 1066 which has, however, blurred our understanding of social, political and economic change for the nearly two and a half centuries between that event and the end of the reign of Edward I in 1307, is the custom of not including a date of issue in charters.

Charters were the most ubiquitous records of the time and it is estimated that for the 12th and 13th centuries alone over a million have survived as originals or cartulary copies. On the Continent in the 11th century, time and place determined whether a charter would include a date reference. The closer the tie between the issuer and the Roman tradition, the greater the likelihood that it would be dated. But in Burgundy, as in Normandy, the custom of including dates declined steadily from the late tenth century until the middle of the eleventh century, when dating became quite rare. These territories lay well outside the formal control of the French king. It is above all this detachment from royal administrative supervision which may explain why, when the charters of the French monarchy continued to be dated, those of some, at least, of the more independent outlying provinces did not.

In this regard, it was England's fate that the Norman Conquest took place when it did, for with William the Conqueror came the then-current Norman custom of not dating charters at any level of society. The Norman dukes, whose administrative system developed when ties with the French Crown were weak, were clearly unconcerned about the formal letter-writing conventions which European monarchs had adopted from the papal chancery. They bothered little with traditional formality, dispensed with all that was not absolutely essential to the message they wished to convey, and rarely included a date. They sought brevity and conciseness in their charters and carried that administrative principle with them to England where it became a long-standing tradition in its own right.

It was this tradition, rather than a conscious desire to dispense with the concept of time, that led to the enduring English phenomenon of the undated charter. In Normandy, dating returned to the charter text as royal administrative authority spread in the region after it was returned to French control in 1204, while in England it was with the accession in 1189 of Richard I that dating was for the first time regularly introduced to records emanating from the royal chancery. Attachment to tradition being what it is, more than a century passed before that custom was adopted consistently by those who drafted charters elsewhere in the realm. It was not until the early years of the reign of Edward II (1307-27) that it became customary to include dates in private conveyances.