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In order to understand a medieval document, researchers need to know what it is, and why it was created. Catalogue descriptions created by archivists or curators will give you some information about the document. However, many documents have not been described in detail so you may have to do your own detective work. Deeds and other formal documents used stock phrases and formulas to convey legitimacy. They also used authentication devices to persuade people that they were genuine, and could be relied upon as evidence. Historians study the form and content of documents to determine whether they were written according to the conventions of the time they are said to come from. Some documents have been discovered to be later forgeries by using this method. Common deed forms are described in detail in the Deeds in Depth unit.
Seals were the only form of personal authentication in the Middle Ages. Deeds were not usually signed until the sixteenth century. The earliest example known in our collections is Mi D 1124 (dated 1466), signed by John Byngham. Some medieval signatures exist in private letters, but many letters were written by scribes from dictation so the name at the end of the document may not actually have been written by its owner. A seal is an impression made by pressing a wood or metal matrix into warm wax. The pattern on the matrix is transferred to the wax. Seals come in various shapes and sizes, and there are a number of ways of attaching seals to documents. The monarch used (and still uses) the Great Seal of England to seal important state documents and letters patent. Each monarch had a different seal, but they all look similar. Below is an example of King James I’s Great Seal from 1623 but earlier Great Seals look much the same.
King James I’s Great Seal, 1623 (Ne D 3846)
It authenticates a deed which was probably made c. The seal hangs from the bottom of the document and is therefore called a pendant seal.1300-1325. . The seal. and shows Christ in majesty. suggesting that the seal was formed by hand around the parchment tag. which is called a vesica seal. The front side is flatter because the seal matrix was big enough to cover it when pressed down. and of Prior Reginald. Below is the seal of Matilda de Nevill. It has different impressions on the front and back. shows a standing woman holding a bird of prey. Seal of the Chapter of Repton Priory. raising his right hand in blessing. in red wax. On the back there is a smaller counterseal showing the Madonna and child. 1230 (Po 126) Noble women also used the vesica shape for their seals. The front side is the seal of the chapter of Repton Priory in Derbyshire. sister of Sir John de Eyvill of Egmanton.Next is an example of a large ecclesiastical seal in green wax from 1230. and holding a book in his left hand. probably made of silk. The words ‘Matilda de Nevill’ are written around the edges. It it is attached to the deed by an original textile thong. Prior of Repton’). and the Latin words ‘Sigillum Reginaldi Prioris Rependun’ (‘the seal of Reginald. Religious individuals and institutions used this pointed oval shape. The back side shows evidence of fingerprints.
but the seal is small and round. Seal on title deed from 1388 (Ne D 4716) Some deeds were made by more than one person. Small seals like this could have been made with a hand-held matrix.1300-1325 (Me D 4/5) The following deed from 1388 was also made by a woman. The matrix has transferred the impression of a coat of arms. although one of the seals has since broken off. Maude Brewes. and were therefore sealed by each of them. . c. or by a matrix attached to a ring (a signet ring). like most personal seals. This example from 1452 was sealed by six people.Seal of Matilda de Nevill. but it might not be unique to Maude or her family since by the later Middle Ages it was possible to buy ready-made ‘personal’ seals.
Title deed with six seals. and the known life dates of the people named in it. the handwriting. some of whom are mentioned in other documents of a similar date. This indicates that the document was intended to be folded and tied and then transported for personal and private delivery to the attorney. Her deed was witnessed by nine people. witnesses and scribes Matilda de Nevill’s deed (shown in full in the Wives. Letter of attorney. . A further narrow tongue has been cut for use as a wrapper. Widows and Wimples resource) is an example of authentication by witness and seal only. Deeds up to the mid-fourteenth century were often not given a date. The date has to be estimated from the style of the document. The Dating Documents unit gives hints on how to go about determining the date of undated documents. Below is a letter of attorney from 1428. 1428 (Ne D 949) Dates. 1452 (Ne D 4662) All of the examples above are of seals attached to open. which has a seal attached to a tongue of parchment cut from the document. public documents.
We do not usually know the name of the scribe. This example from 1518 shows a typical mark. This is quite rare. This is still the case in many European countries. Signature of 'Froddesham'. They were not normally needed in England and Wales because customary law meant that anyone could authenticate their own documents using seals. Under Roman law notaries were required to authenticate documents. detail from Ne D 4662 The only other person who might leave a mark on a formal document would be a notary . Notary's mark used by William Brodhed. The name ‘Froddesham’ is written with a flourish. the church used Roman law. but occasionally he or she left identifying marks. notary public in the Diocese of York (Ne D 1914) .The scribe of a particular deed is occasionally named as a witness.a type of lawyer. such as in Mi D 27 and Mi D 236. hidden underneath the flap of this beautifully-written deed from 1452. who was a member of the Company of Scriveners. so occasionally notarial instruments relating to church business can be found in UK record offices. each of which was unique to a particular notary. This is perhaps Thomas Froddesham. However. but instances do survive in The University of Nottingham’s collections.
In the example below. the deeds could be seen to be authentic.Many deeds are ‘given at’ a particular place (the Latin word used is ‘Datum’). If the pieces matched. to strengthen the authenticity. but often the word ‘Chirograph’ was used (literally meaning ‘handwriting’ in Greek). and save you having to read the whole document yourself. For example. read the document yourself or consult an expert. Chirographs Deeds known as indentures are characterized by a wavy or spiky top edge. which was then cut in half. Nottinghamshire. they can sometimes be inaccurate so they should be treated with caution. 1310 (Ne D 2214) Endorsements Descriptions and explanations of the content of medieval deeds were often written on the back by later readers or cataloguers. However. and could prove that they had a genuine copy. They are usually very informative. If you have any doubts. This evidence could be used to spot a forgery if it was known that one of the parties was elsewhere at the time. Often words or letters were written across the area which was to be cut. Maude Brewes’ deed is given in the parish of St Clement Danes in London. the letters of the alphabet have been used. They were devised so that two people making an agreement could each keep a record of what was decided. They were not usually written when the deed was drawn up. Cancelled documents . The deed was drawn up twice on one sheet of parchment. Chirograph agreement relating to the rectory of Maplebeck.
If a deed or document was not needed any more (perhaps because a lease or an agreement had come to an end). 1520 (Ne D 1915) .making herringbone cuts through the body of deed by folding it in half and cutting diagonally Removing the seal – deliberately cutting away the seal and seal tag Cancelled marriage settlement. it could be made void.blacking out the text with ink Cancellation . This would make it clear to anyone that it was no longer in force. but was still kept in the archive for reference.drawing a mesh of diagonal lines across the text Cutting . Deeds could be voided by any of the following methods: Obliteration .
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