Manuscripts and Special Collections

Format of Medieval Documents

We can tell a lot about a document from the way it looks.

Big items would have been more expensive to produce than smaller ones, as would items written on high quality material. We can also look at whether it was neatly and carefully written, and whether the page was decorated. Were coloured inks or pigments used to embellish the text? Was it illustrated? Can we work out why the document was produced? Taking all these things together, we can start to make a judgment on how important and valuable the item might have been to its owners.


Example 1: folio from an illustrated, bound literary manuscript, c.1200-1250 (WLC/LM/6, f. 203r)

Format = Page from a book

Material = Good quality parchment, quite light in colour. Wide margins, leaving lots of space on the page which could have been filled up with writing to save money. The ink is good, clear and dark. The folio is decorated with flourishes in other colours. It includes a magnificent miniature illustration using bright pigments and gold leaf.

Writing = A clear, even text written very neatly by a professional scribe.

Conclusion = This is a display copy book which must have been very expensive to acquire.


Example 2: Manor court roll, c.1430 (MS 66/1)


Format = A roll, made up of lots of bits of parchment stitched together. This might indicate that it was a document that was added to over a period of time.

Materials = Parchment, quite scrappy, with edges that are not straight. The colour of the parchment is quite dark. The ink is a bit faded and rubbed. This might indicate either that it was made using poor quality materials, or that it has suffered from poor storage conditions over a period time. This does not mean the document was unvalued – on the contrary, it could mean that it was regularly referred to.

Writing = Heavily abbreviated. Headings are in a slightly larger script, and the text is laid out in sections to record distinct information. It is not illuminated or embellished. It must have been written by and for someone who was able to understand its technical language.

Conclusion = This is a working document, produced for a specific purpose to help with the administration of a manor.


Next page: Languages


Manuscripts and Special Collections

Kings Meadow Campus
Lenton Lane
Nottingham, NG7 2NR

telephone: +44 (0) 115 951 4565
fax: +44 (0) 115 846 8651