The Materiality of Rulership and Administration

A workshop report by Abby Armstrong

At the end of March, subprojects B09 (Bamboo and Wood as Writing Materials in Early China) and B10 (Rolls for the King) welcomed researchers – albeit virtually – to a two-day workshop: Keeping Record: The Materiality of Rulership and Administration in the Pre-Modern World (24–25 March 2022).

The workshop was the result of ongoing co-operation between the two subprojects and discussions that had stemmed from SFB 933’s Thematic Working Group 6: Rulership and Administration. With the focus on materiality at its heart, the workshop sought to address questi­ons regarding the nature and scope of the relationship between rulership and administration and their records. Scholars working on early China and medieval Europe were invited to present their research on the documents and artefacts of a variety of political and administrative bodies, resulting in a rich exchange of ideas on the materiality of records across time and space. The workshop sought transcultural perspective in order to understand how rulership and administration were expressed materially across different times and cultures.

Dr Ondřej Škrabal (Hamburg University) kicked off proceedings in the first session with his paper on the inscription of manufacturer’s labels on bronze weapons produced in state-run workshops in the kingdom of Hán in the third century BCE. Škrabal demonstrated that the placement, layout and production of these labels can shed light on the legal standards imposed on weapons production by the ruling administration. The utilisation of a standardised layout helped facilitate the accounting processes of the workshop, counting, documenting and verifying outputs over certain periods of time. Moreover, the standardised wording, orthography and the technique for inscribing these labels on weapons indicates an unparalleled consistency of practice within the regulation of workshops within the Hán kingdom.

Single-piece wooden board instruction, which was probably, originally bound with three further double-column slips providing further explanation into government inquiries: Wuyi Guangchang 429.

Attention then turned to fifteenth century England and the production of the ‘Great Cowcher’ of King Henry IV (r. 1399–1413). Prof. Dr. Jörg Peltzer’s (Heidelberg University) paper explored the reasons for producing the exquisitely decorated cartulary. Examining the structure and organisation of the charters recorded within the manuscript, in combination with the decorative series of illuminations, Peltzer demonstrated that the Cowcher was more than a practical record of legal titles and landholding, but rather a political statement of the interconnectivity between the duchy of Lancaster and the Crown.

The second session then looked at different means of verifying documents and auditing accounts. Prof. Dr. Tsang Wing MA (Macau University) presented a paper exploring the decision to seal or write as a form of verification and authentication in early Chinese documents. Ma demonstrated that sealing was used as an alternative means of writing to verify one’s identity and vouch for the others. The decision to use a seal rather than to write was not necessarily due to illiteracy but rather because sealing shared a significant role in the functions of writing in early China. Both the officials and commoners appeared to enjoy a certain degree of freedom in choosing to write or to seal in some specific contexts.

Dr Abby Armstrong (Heidelberg University) returned us to late medieval England with her paper investigating the possible innovative records used on the estates of the earls of Northumberland. Rather than pertaining to a single year’s accounts, three extant documents have multiple accounting years entered side-by-side on the same page. Armstrong argued that these accounts were not necessarily produced to facilitate year-on-year comparisons, but possibly templates from which a final, neat copy of each individual year’s accounts could be produced.

The final session of the day looked at the different types of writing supports and when the documents were written. Chun Fung TONG’s (Heidelberg University) paper explored the materiality of ‘lord’s instructions’ documents issued in Lianxing County in the second century. Tong charted the shift in materiality of these records stating that for a short period between 105–108 CE single-piece instructions on wooden boards were the dominant form before reverting back to multi-piece manuscripts (consisting of bamboo slips and boards).

Coloured lines representing descent and claims to various titles embodied by King Edward IV: Philadelphia, United States, Free Library of Philadelphia, Lewis E 201.

Romain Waroquier (Namur University) followed presenting a paper on the production of witness lists in medieval charters. Based on a corpus of almost 1000 charters of the counts of Flanders in the late-eleventh and twelfth centuries, Waroquier’s study of the hands that drafted the documents indicated that the majority of charters were written by one hand in the same ink. Only a few of the charters studied were clearly drafted in stages with the witness listed added later. The drafting of these charters demonstrate the necessity of preliminary documents to prepare the final version, but also shed light on some of the decisions made in who to record as witnesses to the acts.

The second day of the workshop consisted of a further three papers with a greater focus on rulership and power. Matthias Kuhn (Heidelberg University) started with a paper on medieval royal genealogical rolls and their use as political propaganda during the Wars of the Roses (1455–1487). Kuhn demonstrated that a variety of pictorial elements including coloured lines, heraldic emblems and portraits were key elements used in two genealogical rolls in order to depict the Yorkist kings Edward IV and Richard III as the legitimate and rightful kings of England.

This theme was explored further in a paper from Prof. Dr. Enno Giele (Heidelberg University). Giele examined a range of early Chinese administrative manuscripts exploring the use of layout to enhance political or other authority. Giele demonstrated that the use of black header and section markers, column change and indentations of the text, while all pragmatic features of layout, could also emphasise the titles of imperially proclaimed legal statutes. The authority of these documents was also reflected in the use of slightly larger writing materials.

Recto of the lists of the Yongyuan Era Ledger of Equipment (or Weapons), which consists of five checklists (each headed by a title slip with a blackened slip head and the consequently indented rest of the text) taking stock of equipment at two beacon stations at the northwestern frontier of the Han empire: Juyan document A27–128.1.

The final paper of the workshop came from Hanna Nüllen (Halle-Wittenberg University), who explored the use of written records in urban administration, particularly during local power struggles. Using the case studies of the cities of Friedberg and Gelnhausen, Nüllen demonstrated how different municipal records were used to legitimise decision-making, act as external memory-banks or used as proof for tax purposes. The production of and access to these records were also key indicators of political strength or control between rival parties.

The workshop concluded with a discussion drawing together some of the key themes and transcultural similarities of practice that had been raised in the papers and questions. The organisers would again like to thank all the speakers and participants for a stimulating and thought-provoking workshop.

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Ute von Figura (2022, 25. April). The Materiality of Rulership and Administration. Materiale Textkulturen. Abgerufen am 26. Mai 2024, von

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