Monday, February 15, 2010

On Seals

Obviously we're all familiar with the way Kingdom and Crux seals are applied to AA scrolls. But with writs and a College seal in train, Caristiona has asked me to put up an overview of other ways documents were they sealed in period to spark some inspiration.

Medieval seals could be single or double sided, attached directly to the face of the document, on a tongue cut from the base of the document, or on tags made from strips of vellum or silk or hemp cords of silk threaded through the base of the document.

One of the simplest ways, found in earlier medieval documents, is the seal applied on a vellum tongue cut partly away from the bottom of the document.

Douglas Warrant, 14th century. Collection National Archives of Scotland State Papers SP6/11.

French military acquittal, 1378. Private collection.

Tags cut from vellum were also used for pendant seals. Strips of vellum were threaded through two cuts in the turned-up base of the document, doubled over and secured in the seal. These strips could be trimmed or left to hang below the seal.

Charter of Richard III to Queen's College Cambridge, 1477. Collection Queen's College.

As these examples show, the name and title of the noble affixing the seal could also be written onto the vellum tags. This could be adapted as a neat solution to space for signatures on SCA scrolls.

Possibly the most impressive option is sealing onto cords, which was developed to spread the weight of larger seals so as not to tear the thin vellum. Three cuts are made in the turned up base of the document, and two cords threaded over and under the vellum in a diamond pattern.

Charter Henry V, mid 15th C.

The resulting strings are caught in a flat 4-braid immediately under the sheet, as these bi-coloured examples show more clearly than cords of the same colour. The braid forms a 'core' for the wax seal impression.

Charter seals. Collection Yorkshire Cathedral.

Yorkshire Cathedral Charter, 1604. Collection Yorkshire Cathedral.

There also exists examples of a seal cords in a V pattern, threaded through two cuts in the vellum rather than three. This style would be suitable for cords as well as vellum or woven ribbon tags.

Charter of King John, 1215. British Library MS 610.

Granted letters of ennoblement of Luc de Lys, Seigneur de Reinemoulin, 1612.

Woven seal tags are also known, with examples of tablet woven twill and brocaded ribbons used as tags in England dating to the 12th and 13th centuries. Based on these, Isabail inghean Domhnall created a brocaded silk seal tag as a project for the Fibre Guild, incorporating the colours and symbols of Lochac.

Silk seal tag, Taryn East, 2004. Artist's collection.

Seal bags were used to protect fragile wax seals attached to legal documents, such as this example was attached to a document dated 26th November 1280 which held the great seal of Edward I.

Silk embroidered wool seal bag, c1280. Collection Westminster Abbey.


  1. So with the ones on the vellum strips - how are they secured to the document? Is it that the slits go through the turned up edge as well as the vellum it covers and the tab comes out the back of the document, which is then "glued" into a loop by the seal? Because in the third picture it looks like there should be three cuts rather than two - two in the fold to loop the tab over and one in the fold itself to let the tab out.

  2. Yes that's exactly right. The cuts go through both layers so the tag comes out both the front and back, which is then glued into the loop by applying the wax for the seal.

    I don't think that third charter has extra cuts on the fold of the turn up, I think what we are seeing is tags both layers of the looped tag beneath the document that has created an imprint on the top layers- period vellum is rather than the heavy archival papers we use. It looks odd because we're more used to that loop coming at the back, although this is the style used today (with wide grosgrain ribbons) in mundane grants of arms.

  3. But then you could be right- I just found an English deed dating to 1638 that does look very much like the tag comes out of a slit right on the fold.

  4. There's lots of examples with one of the tags coming out of the fold. (yes I'll provide links - give me a week though). The question I'm looking into is what is the rear of the tag doing. I wish people took photos of the back of doccuments too.