England in the twelfth century was a society in transition in many ways.  Common law was quickly evolving as a uniquely English concept, and with the extensions of the Royal Courts begun by Henry II, centralized law courts began to supplant manorial courts for most major legal transactions.  As part of this evolution, these courts began to keep extensive records.  Written legal documents were not new to England-they had been common for Royal grants and for ecclesiastical transactions since before the Conquest; however, it was in the twelfth century that they began to spread outside the Church and royal courts.

Extant legal documents that we might use as our models fall into three categories:  Individual legal documents, collections of individual original legal documents, and collections of copied legal documents (often dating from earlier periods).

Individual legal documents were often retained by churches, cities, and baronial and royal households and kept in their archives. A good example of an extant individual legal document from this period would be this royal charter dating from 1136: 


Collections of original legal documents began to be more common towards the end of the century with the rise of "feet of fines."  Records of land transfers would be recorded in triplicate on the same piece of parchment-one on the left, one on the right, and one at the bottom.  The parchment would then be cut so that each party would receive a copy, and the bottom-or "foot" of the final concord-or "fine"-would be kept as a record by the courts.

Charter collections were also compiled during the twelfth century.  In these collections, the various legal documents of (usually) a religious house, cathedral, or church would be recopied so that they could be easily bound together in book format.  These documents usually lacked seals, but might be scribed in a more legible script, often with illumination. 

Charter of King Edgar, Cartulary of Winchester Priory, BL Add. MS. 15359 f.9 r. 1130-1140



Original legal documents in the 12th century were usually executed in either a cursive or a chancery script.  Both of these are related to the late Carolingian and early Gothic scripts currently in use in the 12th century, but included cursive (the word means "running"; thus, linked together) elements for ease and speed of writing.  These documents were written in Latin and were heavily abbreviated to save parchment and time.

The royal charter on the first page of this handout shows a typical 12th century English chancery script.  Note the many abbreviations-for example, the word "epo" with a squiggle above it in the first line is the abbreviation for "episcopo" (bishop), and the many marks that look like the numeral 7 are shorthand for "et" (and).  Notice also how basic the layout is-there is no ornamentation at all, not even on the first line.  However, note the size of the huge royal seal.

For a slightly different type of document, here is a document dating from 1154 written in Italian chancery script:


(source:  V. Federici, La scrittura delle cancellerie italiane secoli XIII-Xvii, pl. 32)

Note the highly ornamented and wide-spaced script.  If you look closely at the letters, they have the same basic shapes as an early Italian Gothic script, but with the addition of the ornamented ascenders.  Note the first line consists of a very ornamental, compressed and elongated majuscule script.

Here is a particularly beautiful twelfth-century papal bull from the same chancery tradition:


(source: Exempla scripturarum, fasc. 3; Acta pontificum, ed. G. Batelli (Vatican City, 1965, pl. 7, from the Archivio Segreto Vaticano, Bull. Gen., 1, 4)

Note the large capital, the wide spacing, and the graceful ascenders.  Since this is a bull (from bulla, the word for lead seal), this document would have originally had a large attached lead seal. 

Copied legal documents in charter collections (cartularies) did not usually use a cursive or chancery script.  Instead, they tended to use more elegant calligraphic hands, sometimes with illumination, in whatever the prevailing scribal hand of the day was.  Thus, the document below, a charter of King Cnut to Earl Godwine (11th century) from a manuscript dated 1130-1140 is executed in a typical late Caroline/early Gothic script.


(Cartulary of Winchester Priory, BL Add. MS. 15359 f.40 v., 1130-1140

Note the large opening line "Christi Omnipotentis" with the illuminated "X", followed by a second line in majuscule script, and then the main body of the text.  A particularly interesting portion of this particular document is the section, starting with the large "O" halfway down the page, in Anglo-Saxon. Also note in this document the signature area.  The document is signed "Ego CNUT Rex anglorum cum regina mea Aelfgifu" (note the Anglo-Saxon script for the queen's name) and is witnessed by an archbishop.  Obviously, none of these are actual signatures.  In fact, most charters of this period were not signed in the traditional way; usually the person is named at the bottom, but the seal was considered the authenticating "signature." 

General Principles for Recreating Charters

Layout:  More formal charters use white space generously, with large borders.  Ordinary legal documents often took up all available space on the page.  Documents in cartularies used a more traditional book page layout.

Script:  Chancery or cursive script, late Caroline or early Gothic, or, if using the cartulary model, a transitional Caroline/Gothic script is appropriate. 

Here are a few examples of English Caroline or transitional scripts from the 12th century: 



Decoration:  Ornate first lines using red, blue or green ink; long or decorated ascenders and/or descenders; some illumination in the cartulary model.

Signatures:  Probably both on the same line, perhaps in a sentence structure as in King Cnut's charter above (leaving space for the King and Queen to add their names):

Ego Edouard Rex Ealdormeris cum Regina mea Genevieve

 Seals:  Their Majesties Edouard and Genevieve have commissioned a beautiful double-sided wax seal for use with these documents.  Here is an image of the front of the seal.


There are several ways of attaching a seal to a document.  The seal above is attached by a woven band (tablet weaving is ideal for this purpose.  Another common way of attaching a seal is with a strip of parchment:



Silk braids or fibres were also often used to attach seals:

Simple twisted seal tag (from a handout by Mistress Emmelyne de Marksbury)

More complex braided seal tag:


Diamond-shaped seal tag



The British Library examples were found at the British Library online illuminated manuscript collection at


http://www.dur.ac.uk/medieval.documents/documents.htm (lots of examples of writs, many with seals)