Articles tagged with: Seal

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 New Start: Working as an Archive Conservator

on Monday, 05 March 2018. Posted in Archives, Conservation

In 2017 I graduated from the Conservation MA at Camberwell College of Arts and having volunteered for several years in the Archives Conservation department I began work as Assistant Archive Conservator at the WSHC. My role involves being part of the Conservation Museums Advisory Service (CMAS) who support heritage organisations in Wiltshire and beyond. Primarily I work with the archive material held at the WSHC to help maintain and preserve it for current and future generations.

Since beginning at the WSHC in August 2017 it has certainly not been quiet. So far amongst other things: I have begun to master map repair, mounted and tensioned parchment, attended several conservation surgeries, found some exciting things whilst surveying archive boxes, spent seven hours hoovering the strongrooms and made several gluten free cakes for the staffroom! Here are some of the highlights:

Parchment Tensioning

One of the parchment maps from our collection was extremely distorted so I used a conservation tensioning method to gradually reduce the cockling. Because parchment is animal skin it behaves very differently to paper and requires specific methods of treatment. It was left tensioning for two weeks before being put in a polyester enclosure and returned to the archive.

Parchment before tensioning
Parchment under tension
Parchment after tensioning in its enclosure

Overseers of the Poor Account Book

A project I am currently working on is the Overseers of the Poor Account Book

This is a large project this time involving a very fragile set of pages from 1732. These would once have been bound but now just remnants of thread remain in some pages. The paper is so damaged in areas that it is crumbling away.

Severely degraded leaf from the Overseers of the Poor account book
Loose attachment pieces from the Overseers of the Poor account book

One leaf had a pile of severely degraded papers attached with a pin. I carefully removed the loose pieces and pieced them back together where possible.

To make it accessible to the public again each page is being lined with a Japanese tissue. This is translucent enough that the writing on the side of the lining tissue is still visible whilst making the page strong enough to be handled.

   
Above: applying the lining tissue to a leaf from the volume

Degraded leaf and attachments after conservation work

The above photograph shows the main leaf and one of the attachments that I was able to piece back together, after both have been lined. The remaining pieces were grouped together by ink and writing type and enclosed in bespoke polyester pockets in the hope that they may be of use to future researchers.

Wiltshire and the Magna Carta

on Monday, 15 June 2015. Posted in Archives

2015 is a year for historical anniversaries such as the anniversary of Gallipolli, the Battle of Waterloo and the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta. Through its assertion of justice and the rule of law over the power of the monarchy, Magna Carta (which is Latin for ‘Great Charter’) has become a powerful symbol of human rights, referenced by the Founding Fathers of the United States in the 19th century and by Nelson Mandela in his defence at his trial in 1964.

So what was the Magna Carta? “Magna Carta, issued in June 1215, was an attempt to prevent an immediate civil war. It was the result of negotiations between the king’s party and a group of rebellious barons, negotiations facilitated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton. These took place on ‘neutral’ territory at Runnymede, near the royal castle at Windsor. By this agreement the king guaranteed many rights which he or his officials had disputed, and these included such things as the freedom of the Church, the rights of towns, and that justice could not be bought or sold. The proof of these royally granted or acknowledged rights was the great charter, copies of which were sent around the country. In an age before mass communication, documents bearing the king’s great seal were the evidence of royal policy.” (Source: http://www.salisburycathedral.org.uk/magna-carta/why-was-it-written)  

It is of course important to remember that Magna Carta was a product of its time – many of its clauses were only applicable to free men or women, a minority in 1215. (About 2/3 of the population were villeins or bondsmen, who had to perform services laid down by custom for their local lord of the manor, such as working on the lord’s land free of charge.) It also contains two clauses relating to Jewish money-lending which appear anti-semitic to modern sensibilities, sadly reflecting English society of the time. However, despite this, the overall effect of the charter has been to promote human rights. The 39th clause (which gives all free men the right to justice and a fair trial) inspired the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which in turn helped to create the UK Human Rights Act, 1998.

The Magna Carta is of particular interest to us in Wiltshire because we have several local connections to this famous document.

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