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Bureaucracy from the Margins of Notarial Registers: Notarial Culture, Affect and Paperwork in Northern Italy (ca.1150-ca.1350)

Applicant Kuersteiner Sarina
Number 184028
Funding scheme Doc.Mobility
Research institution
Department of Economics University of Parma
Department of History Columbia University
Institution of higher education Institution abroad - IACH
Main discipline General history (without pre-and early history)
Start/End 01.09.2019 - 31.12.2020
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Keywords (14)

notarial culture; medieval Italy; bureaucracy; state formation; contract law; literacy; music; poetry; visual arts; history of media; history of emotions; social and legal history; economic history; political history

Lay Summary (German)

Mittelalterliche Notare in den Kommunen Norditaliens waren nicht nur Funktionäre und Verwalter von bürokratischen Institutionen. Mit Poesie, Musik, Gebeten und visueller Kunst, Quellen, die sich nicht nur physisch an den Rändern notarieller Register befinden, sondern die auch von der bisherigen Forschung zu Bürokratisierungsprozessen marginalisiert worden sind, nahmen sie konkret Einfluss auf die Bedeutung vertraglicher Beziehungen.
Lay summary

Inhalt und Ziel des Forschungsprojektes

Zu Beginn des 13. Jahrhunderts sind Notare vor allem in den südlichen Teilen des heutigen Europas im Zuge der Verstädterung und der Kommerzialisierung zu einer wichtigen professionellen Gruppe geworden. Als berufliche Schreiber verfassten sie Gerichtsakten, Verträge und arbeiteten für zahlreiche kommunale Ämter.

Ziel meiner Arbeit ist es, anhand kultureller Tätigkeiten der Notare zu untersuchen, wie Notare die bürokratischen Institutionen nicht nur verwalteten, sondern aktiv mit gestalteten. So lassen sich Parallelen zwischen vertraglichen Beziehungen und Beziehungen der Akteure in Liebespoesie beobachten, die Notare in ihre Register mit eingeschrieben haben. Dieses und andere Beispiele zeigen, dass Notare den vertraglichen und bürokratischen Beziehungen eine moralische Dimension verliehen, in der sie Emotionen nicht als Gegenteil der Rationalität ausgeschlossen, sondern als konstitutive Bestandteile menschlicher Beziehungen im Medium der Schrift mit einbezogen haben.

Wissenschaftlicher und gesellschaftlicher Kontext

Im Sinne eines medien- und emotionsgeschichtlichen Ansatzes kombiniert meine Arbeit Quellen, Methoden und Untersuchungen der Kunst-, Musik-, Religions- und Literaturgeschichte mit traditionelleren Studien der Wirtschafts-, Sozial- und Rechtsgeschichte zu einer Untersuchung der Kultur und des Selbstverständnisses von Notaren in norditalienischen Kommunen. Dadurch eröffnet sie neue Perspektiven auf das Verständnis des Bürokratisierungsprozesses und der Ausbildung von Vertragsgesellschaften im mittelalterlichen Europa.

Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 05.08.2019

Responsible applicant and co-applicants

Scientific events

Active participation

Title Type of contribution Title of article or contribution Date Place Persons involved
Public Notaries in Mediterranean European Societies (14th – 19th century), Institute of Studies on Mediterranean Societies of the Italian National Research Council (Issm-Cnr) Talk given at a conference One Medium Among Many: The Role of Notaries and the Meaning of their Acts According to Formularies and Ars Notaria in Bologna (1200-1287) 30.09.2019 Naples, Italy Kuersteiner Sarina;
Collecting, Curating, Assembling: New Approaches to the Archive in the Middle Ages Talk given at a conference Notarial Acts as Sacred Matter: Bolognese Notaries and their Images in the Archive 2019-1303 13.09.2019 University of St Andrews, School of Art History and SAIMS. St. Andrews, Great Britain and Northern Ireland Kuersteiner Sarina;

Knowledge transfer events

Active participation

Title Type of contribution Date Place Persons involved
European Days of Patrimony Talk 21.09.2019 Provins, France Kuersteiner Sarina;

Communication with the public

Communication Title Media Place Year
Other activities Medievalist Toolkit: Sharing the Middle Ages International 2020


Title Year
Lehman’s Center Public History Project Award, Columbia University, given for the project “Navigating the Medieval Past, Present, and Future,” with the Medievalist Toolkit (Carly Quijano, Robin Reich, Adam Matthews and Claire Dillon) 2020


My dissertation, “At the Margins of Bureaucracy: Culture and Self-Understanding of Notaries in Northern Italy (1200-1350)”, examines the increasingly important role of notaries in the development of the urban bureaucracies of northern Italy. The historical background of my study consists of the changing role of notaries and notarial documents beginning in the twelfth century. From at least the twelfth century, amid the growth of commerce and towns and the rise of the first universities, notaries in the Italian communes, charged with the writing of various administrative documents, began to form an important professional class in the civic and legal administration of their communities. In previous centuries, notaries wrote documents as representatives of kings, dukes or lords. In twelfth-century Mediterranean towns, they became men of public trust. Notaries were now empowered to create documents that legitimized social and commercial agreements, functioning as valid proof in a court of law. Italy in particular was at the forefront of developing European commercial and legal infrastructures.However, notaries not only wrote contracts, recorded court proceedings or tax receipts. In the medieval cities of northern Italy, notarial registers were adorned with poetry and prayers as well as pictorial marginalia, additions that give the historian a unique window to observe the cultural and spiritual mindset of their makers. For example, on a register cover from 1289, we find the image of a notary playing the vielle (musical instrument) in the frame of a monstrance, a religious object which many notaries beyond the boundaries of northern Italy drew as part of their signatures. His musical instrument can be compared to the notarial instruments (the word used for contracts) he wrote. In the same way he tunes his vielle, he tunes contractual relationships according to the minute details of notarial formulas. Moreover, the relationships in love poetry in notarial registers - poetry that was accompanied by music - can be compared to the social and commercial relationships in contracts. These and other examples suggest that notaries have given contractual and bureaucratic relationships a moral dimension in which they have not excluded emotions as the opposite of rationality. Instead, it seems that they integrated them via the media of poetry, music, prayers and images as constituent parts within the human relationships in contracts.The rationale of my project is to take seriously the margins of notarial registers and other sources of notarial culture that previous scholarship deemed irrelevant for the history of medieval bureaucracies and processes of state formation. My overall objective lies in integrating the cultural and emotional lives of notaries into the history of medieval literacy and bureaucracy. The specific aims of my project consist in examining how notaries incorporated elements from civic culture, such as music and poetry and from Christian spirituality into the conception of their acts. The time period of my study starts in the beginning of the thirteenth century when notaries became a growing professional group in several northern Italian towns and ends around the middle of the fourteenth century when administrations became more centralized. Through a close textual and visual analysis of different kinds of notarial sources, my work combines the methods and research of literary history, art history, religious history and musicology with those of legal, social, economic and institutional history. I will thus work across disciplinary boundaries that notaries themselves seem to have blurred.An expected result of my study is to show how the culture and self-understanding of the makers of bureaucracies and contracts shaped its development, meaning and ultimately its power. It is from the artifacts of notarial culture beyond the text of contracts and acts that this story can be told. The impact of my study is to bring together administrative and legal history, the history of media and emotions, religious history, art history, musicology and literary history via a new approach, the consideration of marginalia in notarial registers and via a broader integration of sources of notarial culture. While inspired by Max Weber and Norbert Elias, my work also challenges their theories about the role of emotionality and rationality in processes of state formation with new historical evidence. Through my analysis of the sources at the physical margins of notarial registers, sources that previous scholars have marginalized too, I hope to provide a revised understanding of the history of the development of bureaucracies and the medieval beginnings of state formation.