Friday, November 14, 2014

Notarial Signs

  I have a bit of a change of theme here as a result of a request. Yes, I do requests. Sometimes. A correspondent was interested in images of notarial signs, so I have pulled together all of same from the miscellaneous collection of medieval detritus that I have accumulated and put them up as a Flickr album. Potter through and enjoy.
  The signs themselves represent different ways of doing medieval legal business. In those places where ratification of legal process developed from sworn oral testimony - primitive unlettered places like Britain or the Germanic speaking areas - the insignia of authenticity rested in the use of the seal. People did not sign documents. Kings did not sign documents, King John did not sign Magna Carta, OK? Even when they became a bit more literate, the seal was established as the authenticating instrument and documents referred to witnesses, not necessarily to the document, but to having seen and heard that an oral agreement had been made.

  The seals started off with relatively simple designs, but many became very elaborate by the 14th and 15th centuries.

  Seals were owned by individuals, by offices, by institutions and corporations. There is still a whole field of study with much to be learned about seals.
  In parts of Europe which retained aspects of the Roman system of law, legal documents were drawn up and ratified by notaries, who authenticated them with their own unique pen drawn marks and endorsements. I am informed that such transactions as property deeds tended to be much longer and more specific in detail than the brief and spare charters and deeds of the seal using lands, where the document was basically to identify witnesses who could testify to the details.

  This notarial endorsement was at the bottom of a property deed on a roll that was twenty membranes long. I don't know what they filled it up with as I don't have the other nineteen membranes.
  As every notarial sign was supposed to be unique, they developed many complex elaborations; some more fascinating than beautiful, while other had an ingenious simplicity.

  The division was not necessarily along national lines, or at least what we now perceive as national lines. (OK, that's another story.) In the more southish eastish parts of France the notarial system was in use, while in the more northish westish areas seals were used on short snappy documents as in Britain. Sometimes a belt and braces approach was used, as in the following document from 16th century Brittany. Yes, that's westish. People got around in those days, despite rumours to the contrary.

  In Britain, notaries were only used by the church, to draw up documents with, or appealing to, papal authority, such as this one, so that notaries were a relatively rare species among the writing classes.

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