Diplomatics and Its Use in Archives Today

Posted: October 27, 2014 by Martha in Inside the Archives, Miscellaneous Research
Tags: , ,

Guest blog by Rachel James

According to the Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology, diplomatics is “the study of the creation, form, and transmission of records, and their relationship to the facts represented in them and to their creator, in order to identify, evaluate, and communicate their nature and authenticity.”[i] Diplomatics as a study enables archivists to confirm authenticity of archival records, and in turn helps the records to be viewed as reliable sources for users. Luciana Duranti points as that some of the characteristics that are studied include “…the presence of different hands or types of writing in the same document, the correspondence between paragraphs and conceptual sections of the text, type of punctuation, abbreviations, initialisms, ink, erasures, corrections, etc.[ii]

Dom Jean Mabillon (Archives de France)

Figure 1. Dom Jean Mabillon (Archives de France)

Dom Jean Mabillon, a French Benedictine monk, wrote De re diplomatica, consequently creating the study of diplomatics in 1681. This followed the work of Daniel Papebroche, who had written stricter guidelines for differentiates real documents from forgeries. Mabillon emphasized public faith in archives and reliance on expertise of their gatekeepers.

During the 1960s, Theodore Schellenberg said, in so many words, that diplomatics is mainly for medieval documents and American archivists do not have much use for it.[iii] However, more recent archivists such as Luciana Duranti and Heather MacNeil continue to study and see if it can be applied today. An example of its use today was showcased in the U.S. National Archives and Record Administration’s magazine Prologue in regards to the U.S. Constitution. The author Henry Bain discussed details of the physical document of the Constitution in “Errors in the Constitution—Typographical and Congressional.” He noted the ways the scribe of the Constitution Jacob Shallus tried to add the words or concepts that had been left out which can be seen in the way the text was altered to include them; his penmanship and methods for correction could be compared to other documents of the day.

The work of Jacob Shallus, scribe of the Constitution. (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

Figure 2. The work of Jacob Shallus, scribe of the Constitution. (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

To prevent future readers from thinking his corrections were forgeries, Shallus listed all of the corrections at the end of the Constitution. It brings to light issues of authenticity legally, historically, and in the lens of diplomatics. It also allows people to consider who are the actors and/or creators of the document and the relationships of all parties involved and how that relates to the execution of the document.

[i] “Diplomatics,” Society of American Archivists, accessed October 22, 2014, http://www2.archivists.org/glossary/terms/d/diplomatics.

[ii] Luciana Duranti, “Diplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science (Part V),” Archivaria 32, (Summer 1991): 7, accessed October 22, 2014, http://journals.sfu.ca/archivar/index.php/archivaria/article/view/11758/12708.

[iii] Don C. Skemer, “Diplomatics and Archives,” American Archivist 52, (Summer 1989): 380, accessed October 22, 2014, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40293367.

  1. ~Felicia~ says:

    Reblogged this on My Voyage Through Time and commented:
    Great read!

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