Medieval Writing
Anglo-Saxon Charters and Writs (2)
The diplomatic of the vernacular writ was somewhat simpler than that of the Latin diploma, with less elaborate language. Before the Norman Conquest and for some considerable time afterward they had no written date, while the description of the nature of the grant was less complex and specific. It was framed much more particularly as an oral declaration, rather than as a piece of leftover written documentation from an ancient civilisation, deployed in a different social environment, like the Latin diploma. The great seal was its authentication, so that it could be read out without the presence of the king, but he was still effectively its witness.
The format of the document was as follows:
  • It began with the title of the king (eg Eadward cynge).
  • It contained an address. It was not addressed to the beneficiary, but usually to the bishops, earls and thegns of the shire where rights were to be exercised.
  • It included a greeting (grete ........ freondlice)
  • This was followed by a notification clause, something like let it be known that in Old English.
  • Then followed the main text of the grant, indicating just what benefits were being granted in a fairly concise format
  • It finished with various clauses, which could include the farewell God eow gehealde.
The whole format was that of an oral declaration, and it is possible that it was not originally intended to replace the Latin diploma, but to supplement it by making the content known in a public arena. However, the increasing numbers of writs and decreasing numbers of diplomas surviving from the 11th century suggest that the vernacular writ became accepted as a title deed in its own right.
And then ...
Bayeux Tapestry
William the Conqueror invaded England from Normandy in 1066. Some textbooks put the beginning of medieval English history at this date, but as you can see, there was an awful lot going on already.
The new King William did not bring in fancy Continental forms for his written instruction and grants. Initially he used the same type of vernacular writs as his Anglo-Saxon predecessors. From around 1070, they were issued in Latin, but these were simply a translation into Latin of the Old English form; a Latinisation of a specifically English style of document. Eadward cynge became Willelmus rex anglorum. Grete became salutem. Let it be known became sciatis or notum sit. The testibus clause was introduced, followed by the names of witnesses. The great seal of William the Conqueror resembled that of Edward the Confessor on the obverse side, showing the king in majesty.
Great seal of William the Conqueror
The great seal of William the Conqueror.
The royal charter, or diploma, or writ, or whatever you want to call it, continued to develop and diversify. The list of persons addressed became more varied, depending on the nature of the grant. The place of issue was included late in the reign of William I and the date was included more commonly during the 12th century. It became a document which was delivered open, rather than folded with the seal hanging down, and sometimes the seal was attached by tags rather than a tongue cut from the main parchment sheet.
writ of Henry I Charter or writ of Henry I (British Library, Cotton Charter vii. 2). (From Warner and Ellis (ed) 1903)
The example at left is addressed to the bishop of Exeter, the sheriff of Devon and others confirming an annual grant to Holy Trinity, Aldgate, London for the soul of his wife Matilda. There are three witnesses and it was produced at Portsmouth, but there is no written date. The seal is attached with a tag
These charters or writs served a dual function, both as title deeds to land and as an administrative order to a royal officer, normally the sheriff. The form and function continued to diversify so that by the time of King John, in the 13th century, there were two basic forms. The solemn charter addressed to all manner of significant people and surrounded by all its ceremonious language became the formal title deed. The writ was a letter to the sheriff, another royal officer or even to a private individual conveying an order, instruction or prohibition.
Perhaps the most interesting point to ponder is the evolution of these documents and their relationship to literate administration in the distant past of the Roman Empire. There was not a simple route of transmission from literate Rome to medieval England. Instead, the process was partially reinvented in a society that did not, in fact, have a fully literate mode of functioning, Anglo-Saxon England.
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