Articles tagged with: Document

Seal of Approval

on Monday, 23 July 2018. Posted in Archives

Archives are regarded, quite rightly, as vital sources of information about past lives and times, and are pored over for the fascinating details that they offer. However, in the quest for knowledge it is easy to overlook the format and appearance of the documents, which are also informative, but are worthy of consideration and appreciation for their style and artistic achievement. A good example of this is seals, which were used to validate or authenticate documents, much as we might provide a signature or enter a PIN.  A soft material made of beeswax with tree resin and pigment that was pressed into a metal matrix onto which image and text was engraved, to make an impression. Usually the seal would have writing around its edge (known as the legend) which was often in Latin. They might identify the owner, or be relevant to the image. One of my favourites, in The National Archives, appears on the seal of a lady, ‘Love me and Lyve’.

Why are they important and so deserving of such attention? Because they are examples of the skill of the engravers who made the moulds or matrices, which produced exquisite miniature works of art. This small scale medieval sculpture complements the work of masons, carvers, painters and other craftsmen in buildings, statues, paintings and devotional and personal objects that survive from the Middle Ages.

The choice of motif was a matter of personal taste surviving from a time when people had few personal items. They are revealing about the owner: their social status, indicated by the use of heraldic symbols, emphasising his or her power and authority: their occupation, by an image of the tools of their trade: or their personality and mindset, by devotional motifs indicating their piety, or amusing images suggesting a sense of humour. Wit, sentimentality, and popular devotion, all appear in the designs the seals of individuals below the elites. Delight in the absurd and the burlesque, such a hare blowing a horn while riding on the back of a dog and humorous punning designs and pictograms were commonly displayed. Images of saints with their emblems, such as St Catherine and the wheel on which she was tortured, a pelican in its piety, pecking their breasts to feed their young, were also popular designs. 

I will be giving an illustrated talk on this subject, entitled Good Impressions: Seals from the 13th-20th centuries, at the History Centre on Thursday 9 August at 10.30. Tickets £4.00.

No the History Centre is not trying to compete with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, also based in Chippenham, and taken on a wider brief in the preservation of the Natural World. This is about the seals, archival not mammalian; the lumps of beeswax impressed with intricate and elaborate designs that authenticated legal documents. Relevant in a time when only the few could read or write their names, the conservative nature of the law means that they continue in use today; if reduced to the ignominy of a self-adhesive red circle stuck alongside the signatures on deeds.

A Fascinating Find

on Tuesday, 27 March 2018. Posted in Archives, Conservation

During my ongoing survey of uncatalogued items from the collection I keep coming across unexpected and fascinating finds. This week was no exception. I opened up a paper document to find unusually dense lettering and was particularly interested as it had the signs of being iron gall ink.

Iron gall ink was extremely common from the Middle Ages through to 20th century. Unfortunately because of the chemical makeup of its ingredients it can be prone to deterioration known as ink corrosion. In its most extreme stages it can literally burn away the lettering leaving a text shape hole where it would originally have been. Because of this it is extremely important to keep an eye out for typical signs of early deterioration such as haloing around the text so that documents can be monitored for further deterioration.

Above: an example of haloing around text

However, in this case when I looked closely I found large crystals tightly packed on the surface of thicker areas of text.

Above: crystals visible on area of text (without magnification)
Above: document from a distance, text looks denser in places

Initially I thought this might have been a phenomenon of the ink itself which can reportedly create crystals on its surface, but with further investigation it became clear that these crystals are quite different in size and shape.

Above: close up of crystals

It turns out that these are most likely remnants of blotting sand. This was used until approx. the mid 1800s as an alternative to blotting paper. The writer would most likely have had a small shaker pot or box of sand or dust which they would sprinkle over the wet ink to speed up the drying process, the excess sand would then be shaken off. Although this is just a small detail, it offers an intriguing insight into the everyday life of a past age.

Sophie Coles, Assistant Conservator (Archives)

Useful Tips for Reading Old Handwriting

on Tuesday, 04 November 2014. Posted in Archives

The study of palaeography is something which is one of the most enjoyable aspects of an archivist’s training, but it is not something which is the exclusive preserve of the professional. Anyone can learn to read old handwriting – all it takes is patience, determination, and lots of practice!

Handwriting styles
Over the centuries there have been several major styles of handwriting and handwriting from the medieval period to the 18th century will (generally speaking) fall into one of those styles, going from Anglicana (medieval period) to bastard Secretary (15th century) to Secretary (16th-17th cent) and italic (overlapping with Secretary) to mixed hands (late 17th cent – 19th cent). From 19th century onwards we’ve seen the rise of personal handwriting which doesn’t conform to a set, taught style, and ironically 20th and 21st century writing can be more difficult to read than Tudor, depending on the writer! In addition there are specialist hands used only in certain central law courts. A comprehensive survey of both handwriting styles and the tools used for writing from medieval times to the 18th century can be found at: http://scriptorium.english.cam.ac.uk/handwriting/history/

Abbreviations
Regardless of era there have also been well-established conventions for abbreviating words – think for example of ‘Mr’ for ‘Master’ or the ampersand & for ‘and’. These abbreviations need to be learnt off by heart if you are going to become confident at transcription.
See: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/palaeography/where_to_start.htm#abbreviations

An Intriguing Bill... 18th Century Remedies in Lacock's Box 47

on Tuesday, 16 September 2014. Posted in Archives, Wiltshire People

Lacock Unlocked

Cataloguing box 47 is a slow process, it is packed with lots of ‘bundles’, mostly folded and rolled receipts and invoices for the second half of the eighteenth century, intricately put together in years. They are like abstract pieces of origami which when unfolded cannot be put back together in quite the same way. But this is not the real reason for taking so long to work through the documents; I am easily diverted. On the face of it bills are rather boring, but here are people going about their business on the estate, making trips to purchase goods and undertaking repairs to buildings, the Malthouse and Red Lion seem to appear quite regularly. Local history, family history, economic history, even costume history can be discovered here. Trips to Bath conjure up images of Jane Austen, while wages being paid three years late leave you pondering how people managed to feed themselves and their families. The distractions are plentiful.

But back to the title, some of the most intriguing bills found were those for medicines. For a week in September 1740 Thomas Honey was paid for a variety of herbal medicines, along with the ‘vomit’ was ‘cordial mixture’ and ‘a decoction of ye bark a quart’. I have not found any other references to Thomas so far, but he seems well named. Doctor, apothecary, quack, how to describe someone who supplied these remedies; he charged for ‘bleeding’ so a barber perhaps, or even a grocer? Apothecaries were originally part of the grocers’ trade. In January 1745 it was a Mr Ringston and William Busby who were supplying John Talbot with similar items, a ‘cooling emulsion a quart’ and ‘the opening electuary’ and then nothing until August when ‘rhubarb tinctures’ and ‘mercurial pills’ were supplied.

Work experience students discover more at the History Centre

on Thursday, 17 July 2014. Posted in Archives, Wiltshire Places

For my Year 10 work experience I chose to come to the History Centre. It has been an insightful experience into what the Centre actually does. I was lucky enough to get to do some sub-numbering - it helps prevent documents becoming lost. I was sub numbering the Earls of Radnor archives – which are also done by volunteers. These documents vary in age from the 17th century to the 20th century.


I have been able to do some cataloguing – both online and offline. The documents that had to be catalogued were the agendas and minutes of the meetings of the local Wiltshire councils. I began by sorting the documents by place, and noting their dates in Microsoft Excel. Then we had to go into a strong room, and place the meeting records with all of the others. These files are now accessible to the public. However the files have only been catalogued in draft form.

Some Treasures from the Lacock Archive

on Saturday, 15 March 2014. Posted in Archives

Over the last few months, I have been cataloguing the Lacock archive with the help of several volunteers and just about every day I come across some interesting documents, some of which I hope to share with you over the next few months.


Recently, for example, I have been able to find out information gained from wills and other legal documents about the identity of illegitimate children of John Talbot (1717-1778), one of the owners of the Lacock estate who was married but widowed after only two years, and had no children from the marriage. He did, however, have at least four children with local women. At least two of the children were provided for in John Talbot’s will (another had died, and it is assumed that the fourth did too but no evidence has been found). However, he was clearly very concerned about the welfare of his children and tried to ensure that they would be provided for not just in a legal sense. A very touching letter has been found in the archive, dictated just before his death to his friend John Santer, which shows his concerns. This is a lovely thing to find in the archive as it shows the human side of an aristocratic family who, especially with the issue of illegitimacy and inheritance, tended to keep very discrete.

A transcription of some of the letter shows John’s troubled mind:

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