Signs of Post-Millennial Society

Brigitte Bedos-Rezak

Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

The Apocalyptic Year 1000

Boston University

November 3-5, 1996

The West Frankish kingdom formed within the orbit of the provincial Roman world of late antiquity continued to rely on the written word for its learning, religion, government, and law from the fifth century onward. However, if the use of writing endured, circumstances for the production, use, and preservation of the written word changed, as did its material forms and manifestations, and indeed its meaning and value within Frankish society. I wish to chart the operations, literal and symbolic, semantic and semiotic, of a new manifestation of the written word in the eleventh century, the non-royal sealed charter. Such an analysis permits insight into the processes by which, through the agency of seals, individuals came to be constructed as persons, and society to be shaped as a body of individuated people.

Although I position my analysis of seals at the beginning of their expansions within French culture and society (1000-1200), I do not intend to focus on the question of origins conceived in terms of precedence. According to well developed theories, the use of sealed documents in medieval France spread in connection with the revivals of traded and urbanization, the growth of bureaucracies, and the reintroduction of Roman law, which is not to say that this use spread because of them. Enabling conditions should not be mistaken for explanations, nor do the circumstances lend themselves readily to a chronology indicating precedence of one phenomenon over the others. Further, the writing bureaus which produced sealed charters form the eleventh century onward appear to have been located in abbeys or cathedrals which either had in residence, or had formed, scholars active in: debates about the Trinity and the related issues of person, image, and resemblance; controversies about the Eucharist and the related subjects of incarnation, real presence, symbol, and representation; the study of sacraments and sign theory. Thus, the diffusion of seal practice locates itself within a broader discourse on semiotics, theology, and liturgy which in prescholastic culture concerned essentially the displacement of Augustinian symbolism by Aristotelian realism. I therefore seek to interpret the seal within its contemporary context of a quest for a new semiotics in which immanence rather transcendence governed the rapport between signifier and signified, thus opening new possibilities for modes of representation.

I will discuss the idea of medieval identity encoded within the sealing process, the system of figural representation on seals, and the seal metaphor as it was used in their treatises by chancery scholars. Postmillennial sealed charters present a correlation between disclosure of the individual and commitment to earthly posterity. In diplomatic discourse, individuation merged with a temporal conceptualization that had moved from eternity to historical time. This brings up two questions: 1) the nature of the dialectics between the reckoning of time and social regimentation, and 2) the significance of this new reckoning as a postmillennial occurrence.


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