Medieval Writing
Paleography Exercises
Manumissions of Serfs, 12th century (Exeter. Chapter Library, No.3501). (From The New Palaeographical Society 1903)
This page contains four manumissions of serfs, that is to say, legal documents freeing serfs from their feudal obligations. They were orginally recorded in a manuscript of the gospels belonging to Exeter Cathedral, but were at some stage rebound among the introductory leaves of The Exeter Book, a volume of Anglo-Saxon poetry and other material. Their origin in a book of sacred words, and the nature of the wording of the texts themselves, indicates the origins of these kinds of legal documents in sworn and binding witnessed oral testimony, which was then written down for reference. The language of the manumissions is Old English, which is so very different to the mother tongue we know and love today that it is almost incomprehensible. Even looking words up in an Anglo-Saxon dictionary provides challenges, as they were many centuries away from developing any sort of consistency in spelling.
The four manumissions are written in different hands, but they are very similar in type. While we would probably have to call it a late insular minuscule, it differs little in many ways from protogothic, except for the particular forms of certain letters; in other words, insular minuscule letter forms in protogothic style, if that makes sense. The hands perhaps resemble the document hands of the day, with their tall wedgy ascenders and spiky descenders , rather than the short blocky look of book hand.
The wording of each entry is fairly standardised. I have not included a translation as Old English is not my thing at all, but it is possible to make out the general structure of the wording, so we will look at that as we proceed through the text.
The transcription is that provided in The New Palaegraphical Society, except that Old English characters have been modernised due to the deficiencies of my keyboard, or even the symbols provided in my html editor, in relation to the typing of Anglo-Saxon. No doubt some cybermedievalist has devised a font with those characters in it, but I don't have one, and I bet you don't either.
It is funny how we divide up history. Printed compilations of Old English documents seem to stop short at the Norman Conquest, as if English language, law and custom did likewise. There is a journal article about these manumissions, Rouse-Troup, F. 1937 "Exeter Manumissions and Quittances of the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries" Transactions of the Devonshire Association 69:417-4445. If you can get your hands on that journal, you may be able to find out more about these documents.

| overview | text | alphabet | abbreviations | exercises | transcript |

Click on each of the above to walk your way through the text. The transcript will appear in a separate window so that you can use it for reference at any time. These exercises are designed to guide you through the text, not test you, so you can cheat as much as you like.
Script sample for this example
Index of Exercises
Index of Scripts

If you are looking at this page without frames, there is more information about medieval writing to be found by going to the home page (framed) or the site map (no frames).
This site is created and maintained by Dr Dianne Tillotson, freelance researcher and compulsive multimedia and web author. Comments are welcome. Material on this web site is copyright, but some parts more so than others. Please check here for copyright status and usage before you start making free with it. This page last modified 16/8/2010.