documentary scripts

While medieval documents seldom have the immediate appeal of richly illuminated volumes or collections of literary texts, each one is the final surviving witness to a bitter family argument, a jealously guarded right, or a hard-won income. The complex system of rights and privileges known as feudal law generated many disputes concerning ownership, authority, and inheritance. The increase in literacy during the later Middle Ages insured that such disputes would be memorialized in documents.

As these items attest, English documents vary considerably, from large elaborate items down to small scraps of parchment containing what appear to be a few scribbled lines. 

Takamiya MS 10: Letters patent for Thomas de Greystoke

Takamiya MS 10. Richard II, King of England, letters patent for Thomas de Greystoke. Westminster, 27 February 1393. 

The term "letters patent" derives from the Latin phrase litterae patentes, or "open letters."

Takamiya MS 10, for example, is a grant from King Richard II to Thomas de Greystoke, head of one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in the border regions of England and Scotland. De Greystoke receives the right to hold a market every Monday and a three-day fair annually. These highly profitable rights were often contested; the document containing this grant is in some ways intended to be an embodiment of the power of the king. The large royal seal, the size and quality of the parchment, and the elegant decorative ascenders and initial "R" in the opening line all attest to the authenticity of the document and Richard’s kingly authority.

The quality and clarity of the script is an important element in this royal display. Documentary scripts tend to be more cursive than book scripts, but the two types are by no means mutually exclusive. You can clearly see the double-lobed Anglicana a and the 8-shaped among the letterforms.

Osborn MS fa34: Letter for John Andevyr, Abbot of Malmbesbury

Osborn fa34. Walter Wynhale, letter for John Andevyr, abbot of Malmesbury. England, 10 March 1459. 

Osborn fa34 visually evokes a different authority, the power of the prior of the English Dominican Order, Walter Wynhale. This document, dated March 10, 1459, contains a dispensation from some duties, including fasting, for John Andevyr (Andover), abbot of Malmesbury. Wear and tear have reduced the once impressive seal to a red-wax stub, but the disciplined Gothic script (similar to many in liturgical works) and the illuminated initial convey the power of Wynhale in the world of the Dominican Order.

Takamiya MS 75: Petition by Joan, widow of William Rykyll to Baron Bergavenny

Takamiya MS 75. Petition of Joan, widow of William Rykell, to Lord Abergavenny. England, c. 1500. 

This petition records a dispute among family members over the rights to the income from a small landholding in Kent. The document, though late, shows typical Anglicana letterforms, including the 8-shaped g and the double-lobed a

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documentary scripts