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Original scientific paper

Legal Culture of Medieval Dalmatia between Oral and Written Tradition

Nella Lonza ; Institute for Historical Sciences of the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts in Dubrovnik, Dubrovnik, Croatia

Fulltext: croatian, pdf (730 KB) pages 1203-1232 downloads: 540* cite
APA 6th Edition
Lonza, N. (2013). Pravna kultura srednjovjekovne Dalmacije između usmenosti i pismenosti. Zbornik Pravnog fakulteta u Zagrebu, 63 (5-6), 1203-1232. Retrieved from
MLA 8th Edition
Lonza, Nella. "Pravna kultura srednjovjekovne Dalmacije između usmenosti i pismenosti." Zbornik Pravnog fakulteta u Zagrebu, vol. 63, no. 5-6, 2013, pp. 1203-1232. Accessed 6 May 2021.
Chicago 17th Edition
Lonza, Nella. "Pravna kultura srednjovjekovne Dalmacije između usmenosti i pismenosti." Zbornik Pravnog fakulteta u Zagrebu 63, no. 5-6 (2013): 1203-1232.
Lonza, N. (2013). 'Pravna kultura srednjovjekovne Dalmacije između usmenosti i pismenosti', Zbornik Pravnog fakulteta u Zagrebu, 63(5-6), pp. 1203-1232. Available at: (Accessed 06 May 2021)
Lonza N. Pravna kultura srednjovjekovne Dalmacije između usmenosti i pismenosti. Zbornik Pravnog fakulteta u Zagrebu [Internet]. 2013 [cited 2021 May 06];63(5-6):1203-1232. Available from:
N. Lonza, "Pravna kultura srednjovjekovne Dalmacije između usmenosti i pismenosti", Zbornik Pravnog fakulteta u Zagrebu, vol.63, no. 5-6, pp. 1203-1232, 2013. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 06 May 2021]

On the ground of the medieval Dalmatian documents, the process of transition from oral to dominant written legal culture is reconstructed with all its facets in the legislation, judiciary and private transactions. In fact, the latter proved to be the driving force of the development, especially the transfer of real property. In the early days the writing had a pure function of supporting the oral tradition and helping to memorise legal transactions, supplying the names of the witnesses who were able to confirm the deed if any controversy arose. The potential of the written expression of legal acts was at first recognised by the Church communities (monasteries, etc.), which were already accustomed to the literacy in liturgical occasions and teaching, and sometimes even developed their own scriptoria.
The public sphere lagged far behind the private one in the beginning. Until the last decennia of the twelfth century the major decisions of the commune were issued at the assembly of the inhabitants (arengum), because consensus (real or symbolic) was of great importance for the legitimacy of power. Since the publicity of the occasion already ensured the diffusion of knowledge of the newly issued orders, the written form was virtually of lesser importance. Moreover, a very flexible concept of legal custom allowed it to easily embrace the new legal material.
A thorough re-examination of Dalmatian documents urged to reject the view of L. Margetić on the judicial role of the tribunus as the official invested with public faith (fides publica); in fact, the judges were the ones who could publicly confirm the authenticity of the oral verdict, if it was contested. Moreover, the issue of a suit regarding the real estate was automatically built into the ritual of investiture of the winning party. It was performed by the pristav, who was also entrusted with the authoritative transmission of knowledge on the actual owner of the real estate, his entitling and the boundaries of the plot — acting as a sort of ‘oral cadastre’. Unlike much broader authorities of pristav in Croatia and Slavonia, the documents show that his duties in Dalmatia were confined to the legal scope of providing public faith to the real estate status, and remained in practice even after the written standard of legal acts was introduced, as on the micro level his services certainly did not become obsolete.
In the twelfth century many European urban communities witnessed a rapid growth in the production of written legal documents, followed by an increase in their diversity (by ‘defensive documents’, public documents, etc.). A form of civic government by podestà, the revival of Roman law and the legal teaching at the universities and notary schools were among the catalysts of this process. In Dalmatian cities a breakthrough can be noticed around 1160 – 1170. It was the time when the commune started to feel that the facilitation of legal literacy was among its public tasks, as evidenced by the appointment of the ‘sworn communal notaries’, although it took almost a century for the public documents to really evolve into a construct apart.
At the turn of the twelfth century the written standard was generally adopted in all sorts of legal transactions. In the first place, written documents became a rule for all the important and valuable private matters, with the consequence that older oral agreements — although perfectly valid — were written down, sometimes even by forging the documents. The same transition can be noticed, if with less extent, by the judiciary, as older oral sentences were sometimes committed to writing. The legislative also began to produce written material, and around 1230 started to create more elaborated laws, although the preponderance of the customary law was still not questionable.
Common people, too, came to realise the advantage of written forms, which sometimes gave way to the overproduction of documents or the amassment of miscellaneous documents for one and the same transaction. As time went on, the parties developed stratagems in commissioning and using the written pieces, sometimes advised by their lawyers. The whole phenomenon was, naturally, influenced by the easy access to the notary office.
Special emphasis should be placed on the legal framing done by notary — on purpose or by routine — who introduced concepts and legal patterns considerably different from the genuine ideas and notions of the (often illiterate) party.
The dynamics of oral, ritual and written forms of legal practice represented in the medieval Dalmatian documents showed many similarities with the Verschriftlichungsprozeß in other European areas, though bringing to light some discrepancies and local particularities in the centuries-lasting process of transition from orality to literacy.

Middle Ages; Dalmatia; Law; orality; literacy; legal document; notary

Hrčak ID: 116271



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