The scientific study of letters which are imbued with an inherent legal validity. Such letters are also known as diplomas, from the Greek word diplous, "double", because they were originally folded and sealed. The term diploma originally described the military discharge notices handed over to Roman legionaries, but later came to apply to any letter of legal significance, whether issued by official or private sources.
Other words for diplomas are charter (Latin: carta, used to describe documents which are themselves institutive of law) and notice (Latin: notitia, used to describe a document which announces a legal decision not previously written down, i.e. an oral tradition or a decree).
Diplomatics relies heavily on the Roman rhetorical tradition, and the form which is followed by most diplomas comes directly from the form of Roman imperial rescripts:
- Protocol (preface), consisting of:
- Text (main body of the diploma), consisting of:
- arenga (a general motivation for the document; for instance, a statement of the benefit of keeping written records for posterity)
- narratio (specifics of the circumstances surrounding the issuing of the document)
- promulgatio (formula of publication, such as: "maketh known to all, etc.")
- dispositio (formal declaration on the part of the originator that the document shall have legal effect)
- sanctio (declaration of possible legal sanctions that may be brought to bear, should anyone defy the decisions set forth)
- corroboratio (notice of the originator's intended means of ratification of the legal effect of the contents of the document, e.g. signature, seal, or other means of identification)
- Eschatocol (closing section of the diploma), consisting of:
- Signature and/or seal, of originator and any witnesses
- datum et actum (date and place of issue)
(Not all passages occur in all diplomas, but the order is usually fixed).
Diplomas have historically been subject to much falsification, with partially or wholly counterfeit diplomas being issued to support otherwise spurious legal claims (as, for instance, the famously false Donation of Constantine). It is to counteract the frequent falsification of diplomas in the middle ages that scientific diplomatics slowly evolved.
In 1681, the benedictine monk Jean Mabillon established the scientific criteria and principles whereby modern critical analysis of diplomas is carried out, in his seminal work De re diplomatica. Further technical development of diplomatics took place in France, Austria and Germany.
The chief usage of diplomatics is, naturally, the determination of the authenticity of a diploma, and the interpretation of its legal significance. Analysis of a diploma can be a complex business, requiring careful study of internal as well external circumstances. Often, the matter is complicated by the loss of the original, in which case careful analysis of possible motives for falsification of the copies is likewise required.
Together with paleography, sigillography and heraldry, diplomatics forms part of the secondary sciences of history, law, and philology.
Sample of analysis of a diploma (Pope Eugene III, Summons to the The Second Crusade/Second Crusade, December 1, 1154):
(intitulatio) Bishop Eugene, servant of the servants of God, (inscriptio) to his most beloved son in Christ, Louis, the illustrious king of the French, and to his beloved sons, the princes, and to all the faithful ones of God who are established throughout Gaul,-(salutatio) greeting and apostolic benediction.
(arenga) How much our predecessors the Roman pontiffs did labour for the deliverance of the oriental church, we have learned from the accounts of the ancients and have found it written in their acts. For our predecessor of blessed memory, pope Urban, did sound, as it were, a celestial trump and did take care to arouse for its deliverance the sons of the holy Roman church from the different parts of the earth. At his voice, indeed, those beyond the mountain and especially the bravest and strongest warriors of the French kingdom, and also those of Italy, inflamed by the ardour of love did come together, and, congregating a very great army, not without much shedding of their own blood, the divine aid being with them, did free from the filth of the pagans that city where our Saviour willed to suffer for us, and where He left His glorious sepulchre to us as a memorial of His passion, -and many others which, avoiding prolixity, we refrain from mentioning.
(narratio) Which, by the grace of God, and the zeal of your fathers, who at intervals of time have striven to the extent of their power to defend them and to spread the name of Christ in those parts, have been retained by the Christians up to this day; and other cities of the infidels have by them been manfully stormed. But now, our sins and those of the people themselves requiring it, a thing which we can not relate without great grief and wailing, the city of Edessa which in our tongue is called Rohais, - which also, as is said, once when the whole land in the east was held by the pagans, alone by herself served God under the power of the Christians - has been taken and many, of the castles of the Christians occupied by them (the pagans). The archbishop, moreover, of this same city, together with his clergy and many other Christians, have there been slain, and the relics of the saints have been given over to the trampling under foot of the infidels, and dispersed. Whereby how great a danger threatens the church of God and the whole of Christianity, we both know ourselves and do not believe it to be hid from your prudence. For it is known that it will be the greatest proof of nobility and probity, if those things which the bravery of your fathers acquired be bravely defended by you the sons. But if it should happen otherwise, which God forbid, the valour of the fathers will be found to have diminished in the case the of the sons.
(promulgatio) We exhort therefore all of you in God, we ask and command, and, for the remission of sins enjoin: that those who are of God, and, above all, the greater men and the nobles do manfully gird themselves; and that you strive so to oppose the multitude of the infidels, who rejoice at the time in a victory gained over us, and so to defend the oriental church -freed from their tyranny by so great an outpouring of the blood of your fathers, as we have said, - and to snatch many thousands of your captive brothers from their hands,- that the dignity of the Christian name may be increased in your time, and that your valour which is praised throughout the whole world, may remain intact and unshaken. May that good Matthias be an example to you, who, to preserve the laws of his fathers, did not in the least doubt to expose himself with his sons and relations to death, and to leave whatever he possessed in the world; and who at length, by the help of the divine aid, after many labours however, did, as well as his progeny, manfully triumph over his enemies.
(dispositio) We, moreover, providing with paternal solicitude for your tranquillity and for the destitution of that same church, do grant and confirm by the authority conceded to us of God, to those who by the promptings of devotion do decide to undertake and to carry through so holy and so necessary a work and labour, that remission of sins which our aforesaid predecessor pope Urban did institute; and do decree that their wives and sons, their goods also and possessions shall remain under the protection of our selves and of the archbishops, bishops and other prelates of the church of God. By the apostolic authority, moreover, we forbid that, in the case of any thing, which they possessed in peace, when they took the cross, any suit be brought hereafter until most certain news has been obtained concerning their return or their death. Moreover since those who war for the Lord should by no means prepare themselves with precious garments, nor with provision for their personal appearance, nor with dogs or hawks, other things which portend licentiousness: we exhort your prudence in the Lord that those who have decided to undertake so holy a work shall not strive after these things, but shall show zeal and diligence with all their strength in the matter of arms, horses and other things with which they may fight the infidels. But those who are oppressed by debt and begin so holy a journey with a pure heart, shall not pay interest for the time past, and if they or any others for them are bound by an oath or pledge in he matter of interest, we absolve them by apostolic authority. It is allowed to them also when their relations, being warned, or the lords to whose fee they belong, are either unwilling or unable to advance them the money, to freely pledge without any reclamation, their lands or other possessions to churches, or ecclesiastical persons, or to any other of the faithful. According to the institution of our aforesaid predecessor, by the authority of almighty God and by that of St. Peter the chief of the apostles, conceded to us by God, we grant such remission and absolution of sins, that he who shall devoutly begin so sacred a journey and shall accomplish it, or shall die during it, shall obtain absolution for all his sins which with a humble and contrite heart he shall confess, and shall receive the fruit of eternal retribution from the Remunerator of all.
(datum et actum) Given at Vetralle on the Kalends of December.
Source: The Internet Medieval Sourcebook
L. Santifaller: Urkundenforschung, 2. Aufl., 1967