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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

04/2015 manuscript  of the month

Celestial and Terrestrial

A Notebook from the Centre of Power

Housed in the archives of the National Library of France in Paris (BN), MS Lat. 2718 presents itself as plain and unadorned. With a relatively unappealing design and seemingly unsystematic sequence of texts, the codex initially appears to be nothing spectacular. Although it may not make nearly such a grand impression as some other copies from the same period, however, this work is in fact one of the most noteworthy manuscripts of the ninth century. This is already apparent in the unusual exterior appearance of the manuscript, not to mention the heterogeneous content of the work, which makes it difficult to identify a common theme. Yet the manuscript contains the only written versions of a number of pivotal texts from the reign of Emperor Louis the Pious (814–840), the son and successor of Charlemagne. So what is the background to this remarkable codex?

Fig. 1: Paris, BN, MS Lat. 2718, fol. 72r. End of a theological
text and start of the first “Formulae imperiales" group.
© Bibliothèque nationale de France (
> Enlarge

This no-frills working manuscript originates from the Basilica of St Martin in Tours and has been dated by researchers to the second quarter of the ninth century. The manuscript comprises 140 folios and has a small, horizontal format that is unusual. Several of the folios are noticeably shorter than the rest, causing considerable fluctuations in the dimensions of the pages and even creating an impression of untidiness in some parts. There are a number of other irregularities in the parchment, some minor and others more striking. All this leads to the valid assumption that MS Lat. 2718 was manufactured using scraps of parchment left over from the production of other works such as charters. The codex is written for the most part in Carolingian minuscule, a standard book script. In addition, there are passages in Tironian notes, which was a system of Roman shorthand commonly used in the Frankish imperial chancellery and in the monastic scriptoria of the time.

Fig. 2: Paris, BN, MS Lat. 2718, fol. 26r. Considerable
irregularities in the folios due to the use of leftover scraps
of parchment. © Bibliothèque nationale de France
( > Enlarge

As far as the content is concerned, we find a broad range of different texts here. The manuscript is primarily made up of theological texts, predominantly treatises and essays by church fathers Augustine of Hippo (354–430) and Cyprian of Carthage (?–258), but it also contains shorter theological “handbooks”, sermons and excerpts. Besides the theological works, there is also a letter from Charlemagne to Alcuin of York (?–804) and the monastic community of St Martin in Tours as well as a series of texts from the legal field. These include 55 charter formulae known as the Formulae imperiales, which were model texts for drawing up charters. They are based on actual diplomas issued by Louis the Pious and occur in eight different groups throughout the manuscript. Besides the formulae, the manuscript contains a number of noteworthy capitularies. These are texts which – to put it in simple terms – can be defined as decrees and announcements made by Frankish rulers. Some of them had a “legislative” or administrative character, while others were intended for the purpose of religious instruction. The present manuscript involves several works from the years between 817 and 821, which was also the period of Louis the Pious’s reign. For two of the capitularies and one of the theological texts, the author has chosen the typical stenographic shorthand of the time – the same as is used for the Formulae imperiales.

Fig. 3: Paris, BN, MS Lat. 2718, fol. 80v. Use of Tironian notes
and clear change of ink. © Bibliothèque nationale de France
( > Enlarge

The formulae and capitularies help us to localise the codex more precisely. What we have here is a manuscript which was clearly produced within an extremely close radius of the imperial chancellery. In other words, it can be ascribed to the immediate environs of the imperial court. Where else could the scribe have accessed the complete set of charter texts on which the Formulae imperiales are based and which are aimed at an audience extending across the entire empire? Moreover, where else could one expect commensurate interest in a collection such as this, if not here? The transcript of the capitularies also indicates that the manuscript – not per se, but in conjunction with the formulae – was produced in close proximity to the court. The same applies to the Tironian notes, in which only a handful of large monasteries besides the royal chancellery were proficient.

It thus seems reasonable to assume that the owner of the manuscript was a member of the chancellery of Louis the Pious who also had a link to the Basilica of St Martin in Tours. Besides originating from there, the manuscript also has connections to St Martin as regards content – the aforementioned letter from Charlemagne comes to mind, for example. The question remains as to whether the author was perhaps the notary Hirminmaris, who is often mentioned in this context. He is presumed to have been a monk at St Martin’s and was employed in the imperial chancellery from 816 to 839. Likewise, we can only speculate about whether Abbot Fridugis of Tours (?–834), who was head of the imperial chancellery from 819 to 832, was perhaps the personal link between the two institutions and possibly brought the codex from the court to St Martin’s. As unsatisfactory as it may be, this remains little more than guesswork – we should not be overhasty in attempting to link MS Lat. 2718 to a specific name.

Fig. 4: Paris, BN, MS Lat. 2718, fol. 76r. Below: start of the
famous “Ordinatio imperii”. © Bibliothèque nationale de
France ( > Enlarge

Fig. 5: Paris, BN, MS Lat. 2718, fol. 45r. Augustine text with
a striking hole in the parchment. © Bibliothèque nationale
de France ( > Enlarge

One thing is certain, however: the significance of the Paris manuscript for academic research cannot be overestimated. Alone the unique way in which the Formulae imperiales or the Ordinatio imperii – an edict issued by Louis the Pious in 817 to establish the terms for his succession – are transmitted in the manuscript make it an invaluable source for historical research. Moreover, what we have in front of us appears essentially to be a type of personal notebook – the private compilation of someone from the immediate environs of the court of Louis the Pious. The manuscript, which perhaps started as a theological compendium, but was also being used for other entries within less than a quarter of a century, appears to contain everything deemed worthy of recording by its author – motivated either by pragmatic reasons or by personal interests. The resulting multiple-text manuscript was converted into a composite manuscript, probably in the twelfth century, by re-copying part of the Augustine text at the start and adding the copy to the bound pages – all for no apparent reason. Whoever was responsible in the ninth century for producing the manuscript must have had the best of insights into charter production and other standard business within the empire, and indeed into the political events of the time – this is obvious from a quick glance at the codex. The same conclusion is supported not least by one of the theological texts, the majority of which are initially unremarkable and appear to comply with the general interests and trends of the ninth century. However, John Chrysostom’s (?–407) “Compunction of the Heart” (De conpunctione cordis) is a further example of a work which can most definitely be interpreted as a reaction to the political and religious context of the time, namely to the crisis of the 820s which culminated in the public penance by Emperor Louis the Pious in Soissons (833). So all in all, it is hardly an exaggeration to speak of a notebook “from the centre of power”.


GANZ, David (2004): “Paris BN Latin 2718: Theological Texts in the Chapel and the Chancery of Louis the Pious”. In: Oliver Münsch / Thomas Zotz (Hgg.): Scientia veritatis. Festschrift für Hubert Mordek zum 65. Geburtstag. Ostfildern: Thorbecke, 137–152.

JOHANEK, Peter (1996): “Herrscherdiplom und Empfängerkreis. Die Kanzlei Ludwigs des Frommen in der Schriftlichkeit der Karolingerzeit“. In: Rudolf Schieffer (Hg.): Schriftkultur und Reichsverwaltung unter den Karolingern. Referate des Kolloquiums der Nordrhein-Westfälischen Akademie der Wissenschaften am 17./18. Februar 1994 in Bonn (Abhandlungen der Nordrhein-Westfälischen Akademie der Wissenschaften 97). Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 167–188.

McKITTERICK, Rosamond (1989): The Carolingians and the written word. Cambridge u. a.: Cambridge University Press.

MERSIOWSKY, Mark (2004): “Saint-Martin de Tours et les chancelleries carolingiennes“. In: Philippe Depreux / Bruno Judic (Hgg.), Alcuin, de York à Tours. Écriture, pouvoir et réseaux dans l’Europe du haut Moyen Âge (Annales de Bretagne et des Pays de l’Ouest 111/3). Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 73–90.

MORDEK, Hubert (1995): Bibliotheca capitularium regum Francorum manuscripta. Überlieferung und Traditionszusammenhang der fränkischen Herrschererlasse (MGH Hilfsmittel 15). München: Monumenta Germaniae Historica, 422–430.

RIO, Alice (2009):Legal Practice and the Written Word in the Early Middle Ages. Frankish Formulae, c. 500–1000 (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought. Fourth Series 75). Cambridge u. a.: Cambridge University Press.


Current owner: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France
Shelf mark: Ms. lat. 2718
Material: Parchment, 140 foll.
Dimension: 100–160 x 240–250 mm
Provenance: Chancellery Louis the Pious / Basilica of St Martin in Tours; second quarter 9th century (around 830)
Digital representation:

Text by Sarah Patt