Public Acts: Performance, Popular Literacies, and the Documentary Revolution of Medieval Europe


Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowships for Recently Tenured Scholars




For residence at the National Humanities Center during academic year 2013-2014


This project exposes the embodied, performative practices that enabled the inscription, publication, and preservation of documents in northwestern Europe from the eleventh through thirteenth centuries: a period of rapid escalation in the production and retention of written records. Focusing on the indigenous, local forms of communication, the popular literacies through which documents were created and broadcast, it shows that a variety of historical actors (notorious and unnamed) were directly and indirectly engaged in their manufacture and manipulation, immediately and over time. It therefore contends that recovering information about the process of documentation is at least as important as the documents themselves, and that performance is a crucial analytical category for the interpretation of historical sources and the evaluation of their evidentiary status. This essential argument could apply to any historical era when the relationship among competing literacies, or between writing and other forms of communication, is being re-negotiated.