Gift to the Abbess Johannia
Papyrus, Italy (Ravenna), ca. 700
What can one worn piece of papyrus tell us about the vibrant culture of medieval Ravenna? Upon first glance, not much. A record of two witnesses, verifying the gift of John and Stefania to the Abbess Johannia, Scheide M98 looks more like a piece of scrap than an official property record with its frayed edges with virtually illegible Latin script. But despite its appearance today, this single manuscript provides a window into the complex world of medieval economy, politics, and society.
It is important to note that this high-class document was written on papyrus. At the turn of the 8th century, papyrus only grew in Egypt. The presence of papyrus in Europe, the earliest indications of which date back to the 5th century, has long been discussed by medieval scholars as a possible signal of strong trans-Mediterranean trade even after the Roman imperial collapse. While evidence suggests that some Merovingian rulers and bishops continued to write on papyrus up to the 650s, Western scribes more commonly employed vellum made from animal skins as their primary writing material throughout the Middle Ages. Scheide 98 reflects the later use of papyrus in Italy, which some scholars have traced well into the 11th century, suggesting a continuing movement of trade goods between Muslim Egypt and Byzantine Italy.
The haphazardness of the text has made this manuscript particularly difficult to study. Not only are parts of the text missing due to fraying and other damage, the scribe wrote with a hasty hand and used abbreviations that continue to perplex Latin scholars. Though seemingly unconventional and even incomplete, this style of abbreviation used by the scribe was likely one that he and his readers were familiar with. Not only does this discrepancy between the Latin in Scheide 98 and out modern understanding reveal the ways in which Latin has changed over the lifetime of this text, but it also offers a rare window into the practices of early medieval literacy.
From portions of legible text, we can deduce that the gift of three-twelfths of an estate called “Cellulas” was donated by Johannes, referred to here as commander (primericus) of a Ravenna troop (numerus), together with his wife. The gift is addressed to Johannia, abbess of the monastery of San Giovanni Battista ad Navicula. Two major players stand out in this exchange: a high military officer and the female head of a major ecclesiastical institution. What kind of implications can we draw out about the relationship between military and ecclesiastical institutions at this time?
Around the year 700, Ravenna was the capital and administrative center of the Exarchate of Ravenna, under the lordship of the Byzantine Empire. Immediately preceding the manuscript’s publication, Emperor Justinian II was deposed and exiled in a popular uprising in 695 and military leader Leontios assumed the role of emperor. The archbishopric of Ravenna was also one of the most powerful religious offices under the pope until 712 . Situated between Justinian II’s deposition and his return to the throne in 705, this manuscript preserves a time of imperial and ecclesiastical upheaval.
Another unusual feature of this document is the prominence of women. Perhaps the most notable detail in this category is the dedication of the gift to the Abbess Johannia. While it was not uncommon to find women in the monastic order at this time, a female head of a monastery within an ecclesiastical institution as powerful as Ravenna would have held significant.
The deed also acknowledges the exchange of documents between women because Johannes is not the only benefactor. His wife, Stefania is also understood to have a role in this transfer of property, though indirectly. Unfortunately, her name barely survives on the manuscript today. The letters “ST” are all that remain, while the rest has frayed and been lost. The transcription of Italian antiquarian, Gaetano Marini, who inspected this papyrus in the late 1700s, preserved four additional lines at the top of the document which have since been removed or lost, one of which included the full name Stefania. This presents one of the most literal examples of the marginalization of a medieval woman.
What originally appear as visual defects in Scheide M98 actually provide profound insight into the medieval world in which it was created. The fragmentary papyrus highlights a transcontinental economy with sophisticated trade networks connecting Egypt and Italy for several centuries. The abbreviations and the sloppiness of the text sheds light on medieval literacy. The omission of Stefania’s name, though likely a result of material deterioration, confronts the role of women in medieval Ravenna. Though fragmented and frayed, these individual sketches help to create a composite picture of medieval European culture.
Scheide M 98. Princeton University Library. [catalog link]
Albert Bruckner and Robert Marichal, eds., Chartae latinae antiquiores: Facsimile-Edition of the Latin Charters prior to the Ninth Century, vol. 9 (Dietikon: Urs Graf Verlag, 1977), no. 405 (Scheide MP 98), 114–15.
Jan-Olof Tjäder, Die nichtliterarischen lateinischen Papyri Italiens aus der Zeit 445–700, I. Papyri 1–28 (Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup, 1955), 368–70.
Princeton University Library, “A Descriptive Inventory of the Princeton University Collections of Papyri” (Princeton: Princeton University, 2012) [online].
Salvatore Cosentino, ed. A Companion to Byzantine Italy, Brill’s Companions to the Byzantine World (Leiden: Brill, 2021).
Dario Internullo, “Latin Documents Written on Papyrus in the Late Antique and Early Medieval West (5th-11th Century): An Overview,” in Alberto Nodar and Sofia Tollaras Tovar, eds., Proceedings of the 28th Congress of Papyrology, Barcelona 1-6 August 2016, Scripta Orientalia 3 (Barcelona: Publicacions de l’Abadia de Montserrat, 2019), pp. 654–63.
Michael McCormick, “New Light on the ‘Dark Ages’: How the Slave Trade Fuelled the Carolingian Economy,” Past and Present 177 (2002): 17–54.
Renato Piattoli, “I papiri latini medioevali già nel museo dell’Istituto delle Scienze di Bologna,” La Bibliofilía 45, no. 1 (January–June 1943): 30–40.
Facsimile with Transcription
I, Attalianus, …, to this charter of donation which grants immediately from the present day three full and complete twelfth parts of the estate “Cellulas” with all that belongs to them, as it is written above, be given over to Johannia, the venerable abbess of the monastery of Saint John the Baptist which is called “ad Navicula” and through her to the same monastery, by John the commander (primicerius) of the Ravenna troop (numerus), and by Stefania the noble woman his wife, the aforementioned donors, who in my presence have made the sign of the holy cross, and as these things have been 1 read back to them, at their request I have undersigned as witness, and I have seen this charter of donation delivered today over the holy gospels.
I, Sergius, an adjutant (domesticus) of the Armenian troop (numerus), to this charter of donation which grants that from the present day three full and complete twelfth parts of the estate “Cellulas,” together with all that belongs to them, as it is written above, be given over to Johannia, the most pious abbess of the monastery of Saint John the Baptist, which is called “ad Navicula,” and through her to that same monastery, by John the illustrious man (vir clarissimus), commander (primicerius) of the Ravenna troop (numerus), and by Stefania his wife, the aforementioned donors, who in my presence have made the sign of the holy cross, and as these things have been read back to them, at their request I have undersigned as witness, and I have seen this charter of donation delivered today over the holy gospels.
1 These opening lines have been lost, but they were transcribed in the 1700s by an early antiquarian who examined the document.
Translated by Matthew Delvaux.