The origins of Castilian language: The Gothic Cartulary of Cardeña

For a better knowledge of the origins of Castilian language, it is fundamental to study this old document “The Gothic cartulary of Cardeña”. Its name refers to the monastery of Cardeña where it was found, which still today is visitable. The temple is located in a village in the province of Burgos called Castrillo del Val, very close to the capital of Burgos (11 km).

monasterio de Cardeña
As a result of a new analysis of this document, Dr. Sonia Serna Serna, professor of the area of sciences and graphic history techniques of the University of Burgos, has elaborated some conclusions in this respect. Recently, on June the 14th 2017, she gave a lecture titled “The First Great Hispanic Manuscript: the Gothic Cartulary of Cardeña” and, after my request, in order to spread the news, she wrote  for Origin a summary of its content.

At the end of it, I added a brief glossary of some of the words that appear in the text, facilitating the understanding and encouraging  to a detailed reading.


“Founded around 899, the monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña soon became one of the earliest and most important of all the peninsular West, especially in the field of written culture. From its scriptorium emanated magnificent Visigothic codices. One of them, the Gothic carturaly of Cardeña, constitutes a relevant testimony of written, cultural and philological heritage that we must outline and put in value.

   The Gothic (this term is equivalent to “Visigothic” by the spellings used in it) Cartulary  is a large format parchment codex, made in an elegant and fine Visigothic round letter in the year 1086 and currently in The Library Francisco de Zabálburu (Madrid). This type of manuscript, also known as cartulary or diplomatic codex, contains the original documents of the cardenian monastery, something  frequent in the XII century in every monastic or ecclesiastical valued center . The importance of the Cartulary of Cardeña is, nevertheless, huge, because diverse and varied are the facts that concur in it.


      First, because of its antiquity,  although it is not dated in a precise way, it was quite possibly elaborated in the year 1086, becoming thus the first great Hispanic cartulary conserved.

     Secondly, because of the significant number of texts transcribed therein, it holds 373 documents, dated between 899 and 1085, which also constitute a rich source of information for the knowledge of the history of the Count Castilian period, fundamentally. In fact, we find 232 documents included in that times of the beginning of the county of Castile and about the year 1037, the end of the county, when Fernando Sánchez, the Castilian Count, became Fernando I, King of Leon. This outstanding number of texts allows a good approximation to the history of the monastic center of Burgos, as well as other people and institutions related to it during the 10th and 11th centuries.

In addition to all this, and thirdly, we must add the importance as a philological source, because the Latin language of its documents is strongly impregnated by the nascent Castilian, which appears in them at every step. Lastly, it should also be borne in mind that the texts that he treasures are the only documentary evidence of the monastery, for although in the 18th century his archive collected more than a thousand scrolls, as Fr. Berganza related, nowdays, not even a single original has been preserved.

In the words of the director of the Instituto castellano y  leonés de la lengua: Gonzalo Santonja, the cartulario corroborates and reinforces what was already evidenced by the Gothic and Galican cartularies of the monastery of Valpuesta, delimiting the territory of the origins of Castilian to the areas of influence of these important monasteries, as evidenced by their preserved documents. Indeed, through the rich and varied information offered by all the documents of the cardenian cartulary, it is possible to glimpse spontaneous outbreaks of the common language spoken by those people in Burgos from the IX to XI centuries. Thus, we find texts in a very peculiar Latin and sparsely polished, with reflections of words and expressions of the oral language and fully Romance.

Lastly, it must be taken into account that no original scrolls have been preserved of which in its day was an important diplomatic collection of the monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña. For this reason, the texts of the cartulary become, practically, the only handwritten source to know many facts about the life and the history of so outstanding Burgos’ monastery.

Becerro de Cardeña 2

* The photos of the leaves of the Cartulary of Cardeña are  scanned from the originals. Made by Dr. Sonia Serna Serna.


Scriptorium: from the Latin «a place to write», refers to the room of the monasteries of medieval Europe dedicated to the copy of manuscripts. It was usually a nearby area of a library.

Swinden, Ralph Leslie, 1888-1967; A Scriptorium

Cartulary: synonym of diplomatic codex. Medieval manuscript in which ancient churches and monasteries copied their privileges for manual and current use.

Gothic or Visigothic: type of writing that was used in the Iberian peninsula since the VIIIth  century until the XIth included. There were two modes: the cursive, much faster; and the round, more careful and with rounded shapes.

Gothic and Galican cartularies of Valpuesta: called “Cartularios de Valpuesta”, which were in the northern monastery of the province of Burgos that bears its name, are two: the Gothic, written in visigothic letters, and the Gallican, written in carolina (the next type of writing used in the peninsula in the XIIth century), that would be a copy of the Gothic one. The importance of that 187 documents is that in the Gothic cartulary, annotations are made since the Xth century until the XIth century and for more than 37 hands or writes. Therefore, inside the oldest cartulary there are true vestiges of the Castilian romance of those moments, in the Xth century. (Annotation made by the author Dr. Sonia Serna Serna).


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