Medieval Writing
In our literate and bureaucratic society, the ownership of a parcel of land, a house or a commercial property involves highly specific and specialised documentation. In the middle ages, the attesting of ownership changed from oral to written testimony, but the degree of precision found in the written documentation of today is a modern phenomenon. Even in the later medieval era, much still relied on verbal understanding.
Ravensworth castle
The ruins of the castle of Ravensworth in North Yorkshire, with the village behind; a relic of the traditional relationship between feudal landholder and village.
In rural areas and villages, property holding was tied up with the changing intricacies of the feudal system. Real estate could not be freely traded, nor could its disposal be specified in wills. Rights to the use of land were granted progressively down the feudal tree.
Lavenham Late medieval houses in the wool manufacturing town of Lavenham, Suffolk.
In towns, merchants and craftsmen could buy and sell town properties. However, proof of ownership was not recorded in some central register, but was embodied in the documents recording rights given by grant or negotiated at law.
The classes of documents which served as title deeds to land or property are those that have already been discussed in this section. Charters, writs or letters patent served as proof of ownership by grant, while indentures or final concords served to document changes of ownership by legal agreement or lawsuit. The individual documents which were in the hands of landholders or property owners served as their title deeds.
From the beginning of the 13th century, royal grants were recorded on chancery rolls. Monasteries and aristocrats kept cartularies in which copies of such documents were recorded for reference. Courts kept records of cases involving property transfer. If the instrument of transfer was a final concord, the agreement was recorded in the feet of fines. Manorial tenants who were involved in cases pertaining to landholding could receive a copy of the report in the manorial court roll, which served as a title deed. In other words, there was no central repository for records of land ownership.
Stokesay Castle Stokesay Castle, a medieval manor house still in a rural setting.
Manorial lords needed records of the holdings of their tenants, as well as of the services due to them from those tenants. Various classes of documents which can be generally categorised under the heading of surveys were constructed for this purpose. Extents or terriers listed the holdings of the tenants of a manor and the rents or services due, and might include a listing of the stock and crops grown. Rentals were more concise documents listing tenants, the acreage held by each and the rent due. Custumals detailed tenure, as well as the customary law of the manor as followed in the manorial court. None of these constitute title deeds as such, but record land tenureship lower down the social scale.
The great grandfather of all land surveys in England was Domesday Book which, with its various components and addenda, comprised a survey of royal holdings throughout most of the kingdom. This was a unique document.
Domesday Book
Segment from Domesday Book (London, National Archives). (From Steffens 1929)
The earliest Anglo-Saxon diplomas referring to land grants described the parcel of land in great detail, with topographical details elaborated so carefully that the boundaries can be plotted on a modern map. The later form of document derived from the Anglo-Saxon writ of Edward the Confessor relied much more on oral knowledge. Right through the middle ages, documents referring to land grants or transactions identify the plot of land in only the most general terms, relying on the testimony of living witnesses to deal with any disputed details.
private charter
Detail of a charter of Gervaise Payne to the nuns of Nuneaton, late 12th century (British Library, add. charter 47424). By permission of the British Library.
The property in question in this private charter above is described only as molendinum meum de Ingepenna cum prato et crofto, my mill at Inkpen with its meadows and crofts. The parties to the agreement were expected to know which ones.
Top of an indenture of 1190 which deals with ownership of a tenement in Oxford (Christ Church, Oxford). (From Salter 1929)
Town properties were described in similarly non-specific ways. The above indenture refers to a tenement ad portam aquilonarem Oxenfordie, by the north gate of Oxford. It is not until the 16th century, when the procedures of surveying and mapmaking became more professional, that reliance on oral testimony is replaced by more precise written maps and surveys.
Documents testifying to land ownership or tenure are widely scattered. Original charters, writs or indentures remained with their owners and can turn up anywhere, or nowhere. Court records are scattered around England in regional record offices, or may even be in private hands. Bodies of material have gravitated into public archives, but in a random fashion. However, there are vast numbers of surviving documents relating to property holding. Their investigation is a genuine historian's detective story.

The databases of the former Historical Manuscripts Commission, now part of the National Archives, are now online. They can ease the process of searching and save legwork, stamps and time in locating soecific material.

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This site is created and maintained by Dr Dianne Tillotson, freelance researcher and compulsive multimedia and web author. Comments are welcome. Material on this web site is copyright, but some parts more so than others. Please check here for copyright status and usage before you start making free with it. This page last modified 17/3/2005.