Prince, Pen and Penmanship

Uses of Writing at Court and in the Chancery

The goals and aims of Writing Maximilian may best be described as twofold. Firstly, this subproject is dedicated to the:

  1. Production of several thousand (probably up to 15,000) digests (“Regesten”), precise abstracts of all the archival documents processed during the project, strictly according to the guidelines applied by the Regesta Imperii XIV series, to which the subproject maintains strong ties of collaboration.
  2. Aims to answer questions that relate to the various uses of writing at Maximilian’s court, in his chanceries and chambers, and the administrative offices of the central and provincial government, with a particular emphasis on the practices of Maximilian’s autograph handwriting, the various hands of his notaries, clerks and secretaries, the use of cryptography, and the prosopography of the chanceries.

Maximilian’s autograph documents

Maximilian’s autograph documents include formal signatures added to acts and charters drawn up by his chancery as well as more private entries in his Gedenkbücher (memorial books or notebooks). Extensive use of autography is documented by Maximilian’s correspondence with relatives, European princes and members of his court, and editorial activity of his own memorial works. Writing Maximilian aims to determine whether the frequency and nature of Maximilian’s autographic correspondence mirrored the intensity of the princely networks in which he was involved. It will assess the emperor’s involvement as a corrector of his memorial works and, conversely, will determine which corrections were carried out by secretaries.

Quite a few source documents and passages from his memorial works suggest that Emperor Maximilian was personally involved in the composition and edition of the texts that should reflect his self-image. Maximilian repeatedly alluded to his interest in writing and presented himself as having been practised in professional penmanship from his youth through training in the Imperial Chancery. For his alter ego, the Weißkunig, protagonist to the eponymous autobiographical work, the Emperor claimed masterly writing skills and an enormous production of autographic correspondence. In sharp contrast to this, scholarship on Maximilian’s autograph contribution to his literary aftermath never arrived at a reasonable assessment of Maximilian’s hand.

Judgements about the frequency of Maximilian’s handwriting, based on a very limited corpus of sources, prove to be equally inadequate Only against the background of the comparison of the 504 original letters of Maximilian to his daughter Margarete with the only 36 autographs of the emperor contained therein can we understand the assessment formulated by Kreiten 1907: “Maximilian simply did not like to write himself”. This apodictic statement is countered by three longer letters written in Maximilian’s own hand on the same day: On 8 March 1495 in Cologne, Maximilian wrote a letter in German to Archduke Sigmund of Tyrol and a letter in Latin to Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony, as well as a letter to the Duke of Milan. While he also reported to Ludovico Sforza (“il Moro”) on an impending attack by the French on the Kingdom of Naples, which perhaps necessitated a certain urgency in the communication, the two German letters, as a typical text type of princely correspondence, are essentially what were called courtoisie letters in the early modern period – letters on non-urgent subjects that primarily served to maintain princely channels of communication. If Maximilian had really been reluctant to write himself, it would have been possible to postpone the writing of these letters until at least another day. However, in view of the massing of three lengthy letters from the same day, the opposite assumption seems justified: that Maximilian wrote himself several hours a day at least occasionally, if not regularly.

However, this view of Maximilian as a trained, skilled and frequent writer has not yet been reflected in the literature. Only a few autographs of the emperor can be found in the handwritten preliminary stages or editorial copies of Maximilian’s “works of fame”. This is in some discrepancy to the rather unanimous conviction of large parts of Maximilian research of Maximilian’s intensive personal involvement in the concrete literary and artistic shaping of his self-representation.

Yet it would be methodologically incorrect to infer particular personal attention to the annotated manuscripts of the “works of fame” from the presence of Maximilian’s autograph annotations or, conversely, to conclude the contrary from the absence of autographic elements. The very different number of autograph notes by the Habsburg contained in the respective books does not make one his favourite project and the other his literary stepchild. The emperor’s handwritten entries could perhaps rather be understood as an indication of specific reading and writing situations.

Palaeographic assessment of activities in Maximilian’s chanceries

Did Maximilian only write himself into the manuscripts that were created around him – at his dictation or at least at his request – when no secretary normally entrusted with this task was available? Do Maximilian’s personal notes in the memorial books reflect his “flashes of inspiration”, which he put down on paper quickly and spontaneously, without delay, and which could not wait for his secretary Marx Treitzsaurwein to arrive? Are they even the result of nocturnal working hours, written at times when not even the Emperor would rouse a secretary out of bed?

Moreover, this subproject also examines the recruitment strategies of Maximilian’s chanceries and civil service. Studies on individual eminent figures of the chanceries have provided insight into the power that chancellors could exert on the ruler; among them we find some “grey eminences” such as the Austrian chancellor Johann Waldner, who committed suicide in 1502, probably as a consequence of rumours about him, or the almost “almighty” Tyrolean and Aulic chancellor Zyprian von Serntein, who was referred to as part of a “hedge” of intimately trusted courtiers that in fact restricted access to the Emperor according to contemporaries. Taking the impact of chancery staff on processes of decision making seriously Writing Maximilian asks which factors (besides the necessary technical skills) helped individuals to enter into Maximilian’s civil service.

According to a classic definition of the term, the Imperial chancery was the central office in charge of producing (i.e. conceiving/composing, writing/engrossing and authenticating/sealing/registering/expediting) the acts, deeds, and charters of the Roman kings and Emperors. In keeping with this rather technical approach towards the topic, diplomatic has long focussed on the investigation of internal and external features of acts and charters, examining closely the language and style of the text (“Diktat”) as well as the script used by the chancery. By doing so, abundant palaeographic and diplomatic studies have helped to illuminate the composition of the chancery of the High Middle Ages and thus laid the cornerstone for a prosopographical assessment of the chancery staff until the late twelfth century. It was rightly claimed that during the late Middle Ages and especially in the fifteenth century – together with an enormous general increase of written documentation – the chancery turned from a mere “writing office” into a powerful instrument of governance that in fact took over a considerable share of the competences of the council and engaged secretaries who sometimes even had the ear of the princes. The chanceries of Maximilian have accordingly been studied mainly with regard to their contribution to overall administration and the wider political field of decision-making within the entire court society. However, until very recently, more deep-digging attempts to envisage the chanceries and its members as an important hub of personal interaction in the environment of the ruler have remained scarce, which holds true especially for their close ties to the boards of regents of the Austrian hereditary lands.

Whereas this approach has proved helpful to understand networks of power-broking within and between the chancery, the court, the council, and beyond, the classic tools of diplomatic (palaeographic and textual analysis) have been considered insignificant and inappropriate for a study of the mass of acts emanating from the late medieval chanceries. It is telling that the most comprehensive account (from an historical and diplomatic viewpoint) on the organisation of Maximilian’s chancery is a late nineteenth-century hand-written (!) thesis from the University of Vienna, the greater part of printed literature being equally dated. Even though the detailed ordinances for the Imperial and the Aulic chancery were made accessible through printed editions quite early, historical scholarship and diplomatic have shown as little interest in the duties, structure and personnel of the chanceries as they did in the acts and charters, which the notaries and clerks produced. Quite in contrast to this, in the last quarter of the twentieth century German studies have delivered two monographs on the development of a standardised early High German language applied throughout Maximilian’s chanceries. Recent studies on supplications submitted to Maximilian (or his chancery staff) by subjects of the Emperor would be a useful complement to a comprehensive (diplomatic) history of the chanceries and their activities which, however, remains unwritten.

It may not come as a surprise that – since even Maximilian’s rather characteristic hand had not been described until very recently – the individual handwriting of the Emperor’s scribes, clerks and secretaries has not systematically been investigated to date. It is still largely impossible to attribute specimens of writing to individual staff of Maximilian’s chancery and other learned penmen who contributed to his works of fame on the basis of the existing literature. Only very few hands have – if rather tentatively – been identified 15. Writing Maximillian will for the very first time be concerned with a thorough palaeographic assessment of the hands of chancery scribes and clerks as well as of secretaries serving Maximilian. This is a topic of utmost significance not only to the factual question who exactly phrased/wrote the texts of Maximilian’s “works of fame”, but also to an examination of the processes of decision-making within the chancery. Who wrote the concepts of deeds, who corrected them and commented on it, who was in charge of engrossing and/or entering copies into the chancery registers, etc.? Assumptions on the internal distribution of work and duties within the chanceries have hitherto been made exclusively on the basis of pertaining reference in the sources themselves, i.e. the occasional and rare mentioning of individual chancery staff executing specific tasks. But the tens of thousands of concepts for acts and charters contained in the Maximiliana series at Innsbruck and Vienna that feature the different hands of the chancery staff have never been considered for such an evaluation. Older attempts at separating the share of individual members of the chanceries of the overall output of acts and charters relied on phonetic and graphematic features of the text, but failed to embrace the palaeographic evidence.

It is evident that a new paradigm inherent to Maximilian’s concept of rule produced a new group of well-trained people holding offices in the administration: When Maximilian used the umbrella term of “Geschicklichkeit”, he was not so much speaking of personal or individual skills or abilities as a literal translation would suggest. Rather, the term bears a strong notion of “adaptability” and was sometimes meant as an admonition towards those of his office-holders who refused to keep up with the modern times and their rapidly evolving new set of rules and techniques of politics, governance and administration. These shifting demands resulted in new requirements for civil servants and clerks of the offices and fuelled a sometimes disruptive process of professionalisation in Maximilian’s governmental bodies. This brought about the rise of university-trained experts of bookkeeping and finance as well as of writing and chancery business who, as a consequence of gradual promotion in according offices, were eventually appointed members of the Imperial council or even the prototype of what later came to be the privy council.

Yet astonishingly little is known about the strategies the chanceries employed to recruit new personnel and the skills that were expected from applicants, especially compared to the attention that was given to the composition of the council. If one accepts that Maximilian’s chanceries and at least its leading figures gained more and more influence not only through the simple process of drawing up the Emperor’s acts but on the shaping of his entire politics on a broad range of occasions (not least as diplomats and envoys leading negotiations at foreign courts or as intermediaries between chancery, council, chambers and the offices of the central and provincial governments), we should urgently try to cast light on these people and to describe potential general criteria that facilitated a career within the chanceries. 16 Thus, true to the prosopographical approach of ManMAX, Wiriting Maxmilian aims to search among the increasing mass of archival material retrieved and processed during the project for such documents that reveal which people (family and personal background, education and/or academic training, prior positions in other chanceries of offices of administration, etc.) were appointed to the chancery, where they came from, which careers they made (and why) etc. Since an increasing share of clerks and notaries no longer took ecclesiastic orders, prebends accessible through imperial primariae preces would no longer help to sustain chancery members. Rather, notaries and secretaries were provisioned with other (additional) offices in administration and government or lived (at least partly) on bribe money (a practice generally tolerated by Maximilian as long as the amounts involved remained within certain limits). This turned them into “co-entrepreneurs” (“Mitunternehmer”) of the court economy. Writing Maximilian will contribute massively to an overall assessment of personal ties, entanglements and networks throughout Maximilian’s governance system, stretching out from the very core of the court to the distant positions of Habsburg seigneurial rights and properties in the hereditary lands and the territories of the Habsburg monarchical personal union.

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