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Diplomatics (in American English, and in most anglophone countries), or diplomatic (in British English), is a scholarly discipline centred on the critical analysis of documents – particularly, but not exclusively, historical documents. It focuses on the conventions, protocols and formulae that have been used by document creators, and uses these to increase understanding of the processes of document creation, of information transmission, and of the relationships between the facts which the documents purport to record and reality.

The discipline originally evolved as a tool for studying and determining the authenticity of the official charters and diplomas issued by royal and papal chanceries. It was subsequently appreciated that many of the same underlying principles could be applied to other types of official document and legal instrument, to non-official documents such as private letters, and, most recently, to the metadata of electronic records.

Diplomatics is one of the auxiliary sciences of history. It should not be confused (as it often is) with its sister-discipline of palaeography.[1] In fact, its techniques have more in common with those of the literary disciplines of textual criticism and historical criticism.


  • Etymology 1
  • Definitions 2
  • History of diplomatics 3
  • Uses of diplomatics 4
  • Diplomatic editions and transcription 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


Despite the verbal similarity, the discipline has nothing to do with diplomacy. Both terms are derived, by separate linguistic development, from the word diploma, which originally referred to a folded piece of writing material—and thus both to the materials which are the focus of study in diplomatics, and to accreditation papers carried by diplomats.

The word diplomatics was effectively coined by the Benedictine monk Jean Mabillon, who in 1681 published his six volume treatise, De re diplomatica (Latin: roughly, "The Study of Documents"). From there, the word entered the French language as diplomatique, and then English as diplomatic or diplomatics.


Webster's Dictionary (1828) defines diplomatics as the "science of diplomas, or of ancient writings, literary and public documents, letters, decrees, charters, codicils, etc., which has for its object to decipher old writings, to ascertain their authenticity, their date, signatures, etc."[2]

Giorgio Cencetti (1908–1970) defined the discipline as "the study of the Wesen [being] and Werden [becoming] of documentation, the analysis of genesis, inner constitution and transmission of documents, and of their relationship with the facts represented in them and with their creators".[3]

The Commission International de Diplomatique has defined diplomatics as "the science which studies the tradition, the form and the issuing of written documents".[4]

More pragmatically, Peter Beal defines it as "the science or study of documents and records, including their forms, language, script and meaning. It involves knowledge of such matters as the established wording and procedures of particular kinds of document, the deciphering of writing, and document analysis and authentication."[5]

Properly speaking, and as usually understood by present-day scholars, diplomatics is concerned essentially with the analysis and interpretation of the linguistic elements of a document. It is, however, closely associated with several parallel disciplines, including palaeography, sigillography, codicology, and provenance studies, all of which are concerned with a document's physical characteristics and history, and which will often be carried out in conjunction with a diplomatic analysis. The term diplomatics is therefore sometimes used in a slightly wider sense, to encompass some of these other areas (as it was in Mabillon's original work, and as is implied in the definitions of both Webster and Beal quoted above).

Christopher Brooke, a distinguished teacher of diplomatics, referred to the reputation of the discipline in 1970 as that of "a formidable and dismal science ... a kind of game played by a few scholars, most of them medievalists, harmless so long as it does not dominate or obscure historical enquiry; or, perhaps, most commonly of all, an aid to understanding of considerable use to scholars and research students if only they had time to spare from more serious pursuits".[6]

History of diplomatics

In the

  • Virtual Library Historical Auxiliary Sciences - Diplomatics
  • largest online database of charters
  • Online-Database LBA online provided by the Lichtbildarchiv älterer Originalurkunden at Marburg University (Germany, state of Hesse)
  • Vocabulaire international de la diplomatique, ed. Maria Milagros Cárcel Ortí, 2. ed., Valéncia 1997 (Collecció Oberta), online version
  • Commission internationale de Diplomatique
  • The International Research on Permanent Authentic Records in Electronic Systems (InterPARES)

External links

  1. ^ Duranti, Luciana (1989). "Diplomatics: New uses for an Old Science". Archivaria 28: 12. 
  2. ^ Webster's Dictionary (1828); quoted in Oxford English Dictionary (2d ed.)
  3. ^ Cencetti, Giorgio (1985). "La Preparazione dell'Archivista". In Giuffrida, Romualdo. Antologia di Scritti Archivistici. Rome: Archivi di Stato. p. 285.  Translation from Duranti, Luciana (1989). "Diplomatics: New uses for an Old Science". Archivaria 28: 7. 
  4. ^ Vocabulaire Internationale de Diplomatique, ed. Maria Milagros Cárcel Ortí, 2. ed., València 1997 (Col·lecció Oberta), p. 21]: est la science qui étudie la tradition, la forme et l'élaboration des actes écrits.
  5. ^ Beal, Peter (2008). A Dictionary of English Manuscript Terminology, 1450-2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 121. 
  6. ^  
  7. ^ Duranti, Luciana (1989). "Diplomatics: New uses for an Old Science". Archivaria 28: 12. 
  8. ^ Duranti, Luciana (1989). "Diplomatics: New uses for an Old Science". Archivaria 28: 13. 
  9. ^ Harrison, Charlotte (2009). "Thomas Madox and the Origins of English Diplomatic Scholarship". Journal of the Society of Archivists 29: 147–169.  
  10. ^ Williams, Caroline (2005). "Diplomatic Attitudes: from Mabillon to Metadata". Journal of the Society of Archivists 26: 1–24.  
  11. ^ Duranti, Luciana (1989). "Diplomatics: New uses for an Old Science". Archivaria 28. 
  12. ^ Pass, Gregory A. (2003). Descriptive Cataloging of Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern Manuscripts. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries. p. 144. 


See also

A diplomatic edition is also to be distinguished both from a facsimile edition, which, in the modern era, normally employs photographic or digital images; and from a type facsimile (such as Abraham Farley's edition of Domesday Book), which seeks to reproduce the appearance of the original through the use of a special typeface or digital font.

A diplomatic edition is an edition (in print or online) of an historic manuscript text that seeks to reproduce as accurately as possible in typography all significant features of the manuscript original, including spelling and punctuation, abbreviations, deletions, insertions, and other alterations. Similarly, diplomatic transcription attempts to represent by means of a system of editorial signs all features of a manuscript original.[12] The term semi-diplomatic is used for an edition or transcription that seeks to reproduce only some of these features of the original. A diplomatic edition is thus distinguished from a normalized edition, in which the editor, while not altering the original wording of the text, renders it using normal (modern) orthography.

Diplomatic editions and transcription

  • Donation of Constantine. Valla's work preceded Mabillon by roughly two centuries, and was the first application of the principles of modern, scientific diplomatics.
  • The Hitler diaries hoax (1983).
  • The Himmler forged documents) (2005).

Some famous cases in which the principles of diplomatics have been employed have included:

Diplomatics has many similar applications in the field of law.

The study of diplomatics is a valuable tool for forgeries. Its techniques may also be used to help date undated documents.

Uses of diplomatics

Diplomatics is often associated with the study of documents of the medieval period. However, scholars have recently argued that many of its theories and principles can be adapted and applied to contemporary archival science.[10][11]

The most significant work in English was Thomas Madox's Formulare Anglicanum, published in 1702. In general, however, the discipline was always studied more intensively by continental scholars than by those in Britain.[9]

Although Mabillon is still widely seen as the "father" of diplomatics, a more important milestone in the formation of the battery of practical techniques which make up the modern discipline was the publication of René-Prosper Tassin and Charles-François Toustain's Nouveau traité de diplomatique, which appeared in 6 volumes in 1750–65.

Diplomatics became important during the history and law.


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