FINGERTIPS AND SEALING WAX
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University of Lincoln, also in the UK, took up the challenge. With Luke McGarr and Karen Stow of UK-based company Forensic Focus, they conducted a pilot project analysing 200 medieval seals on documents archived at Hereford Cathedral dating from the mid-12th to the mid-14th centuries. This was a period of great change in seals. Whereas they had been used solely by a male elite, by the 12th century, workers, serfs and women were using them on a wide range of documents. At that time, a seal represented someone in a very literal way. Only that person could press the metal matrix that bore their personal emblem into the wax, and the matrix had to be broken on their death, symbolising the break-up of their household. But as time went on, the relationship between a person and their seal became more abstract. By the 13th century, a seal’s owner did not necessarily have exclusive use of it,
MAGINE a murder case in which the investigators decide to discount all scientific evidence. Fingerprints, palm prints, hair – all are packed away in crates and consigned to the basement while the detectives get on interrogating suspects and witnesses. It’s an implausible scenario in any modern criminal investigation, but in one venerable domain it is often the norm: history. Historians put great effort into poring over documents and artefacts to reconstruct past events, but less obvious, surrounding details can be overlooked. Take the wax seals used to authenticate official documents in medieval Europe. Fingerprints left on these seals may survive for centuries, and studying them can yield fascinating insights into the life and times of those who made them. Thanks to a series of projects, some of those seals are now giving up their secrets. The idea of looking at seals in this way dates back to 2005, when French historian Michel Pastoureau estimated that European archives contained between two and four million medieval seals, with roughly one in five bearing a fingerprint. He urged his colleagues to mine this rich seam of information. “Seals are so interesting because they are personal items at a time when personal items were very few,” says historian Elizabeth New of Aberystwyth University, UK. “The seal was your credit card, passport and signature all rolled into one.” In 2013, New and her colleague Philippa Hoskin, a historian at the
both: Copyright:Dean and Chapter of Westminster
Wax seals contain surprising details of medieval life, finds Laura Spinney
Wax seals were credit card, passport and signature in one
and an administrator might apply it on their behalf. By the 14th century, administrators were common, and an important person might carry two seals: one professional, one personal. This change reflected both the growth of bureaucracies and a parallel evolution in notions of identity.
Pressing print To begin with, New and Hoskin didn’t even know if the beeswax would have preserved the prints for hundreds of years. The first happy discovery was that it had, without distorting them. Once the seals were digitally imaged, it turned out that around 80 bore prints of sufficient detail that they could be cross-referenced with one another and with the names on the documents to which they were attached. Up until 1300, those prints were mainly palm prints, probably left by accident as the user held the wax cake into which he or she pressed the matrix. Around 1300, however, someone called John the Clerk made a grant of a piece of land, and either he or his proxy pressed a finger into the back of a wax seal hanging from the document. It’s not clear whether the act was deliberate, but from then on fingerprints
This seal of a 14th century Archbishop of Canterbury depicts the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket
became increasingly common. While intriguing, the study raised more questions. So last January, New and Hoskin launched a larger project called Imprint to analyse seals on documents stored in several UK archives. They hope to throw light on ordinary people’s changing understanding of legal process and forgery, their use of religious and secular imagery and their social mobility, as reflected in the seals’ evolving symbolism. “If we can find a way in to understanding the vast majority of people in this country, that’s tremendously valuable to the historian,” says Hoskin. “It allows us to move away from a small group of people and their very specific interests.” Inspired by the work in the UK, historian Markus Späth at the University of Giessen in Germany and Joachim Kemper, a former director of the archives of the German city of Speyer, have undertaken something similar. They investigated fingerprints in seals made with Speyer’s city matrix from the 13th to the 17th centuries. The prints all follow the same pattern: a finger, probably the index finger, was poked quite deeply into the wax three times in a line (see photo, left),
following the ribbon that the seal enclosed. Using a 3D scanner, German police forensic experts reconstructed hundreds of these prints to the standard obtained by the US Department of Homeland Security when it screens international visitors. Germany in the Middle Ages was a loose conglomeration of territories
HAIR TO THE THRONE The 7th-century French king Childebert III was one of the “hairy kings”, so-called because they grew their hair and beards long as a symbol of strength. Legend had it that they enclosed clumps of their hair in their wax seals as proof of authenticity. A chance discovery in 2007 of a hairy seal at the French National Archives in Paris suggests it might be true. When Philippe Charlier at the University of Paris-Saclay examined samples of the hair under an electron microscope, he was able to say it was human, probably male and probably from the scalp or chin. Whether it belonged to Childebert we don’t know, but further
analysis might answer this. Curator Marie-Adélaïde Nielen and Agnès Prévost, the restoration expert who discovered this hairy seal, have gone on to find around 20 royal seals containing hair in the archives, including three that belonged to the 9th-century king Charlemagne. They would now like to compare hair in seals across a wide range of royal documents, to establish patterns of identity and relatedness between them. Hair can hold information about the age and health of its owner. If the researchers find DNA-rich follicles, they may even be able to sequence the genomes of long-dead royals.
including quasi-autonomous city states. Each of these largely managed its own business, from land rights and legal decisions to religious affairs and treaties. Speyer was such a city state, and its seal was applied to every important document. An indication of the matrix’s significance is that it was kept in a box opened by three keys, each guarded by a different city official. Späth and Kemper’s research was only a pilot project, but they were able to glean a good deal. At any one time, Speyer was run by between 100 and 150 oligarchs – including two mayors, a council of 30 and seven judges – who formed powerful alliances through marriage and business. Over 400 years, roughly 13 generations of officers handled the seal. The fingerprints suggest these oligarchs held office for two years, rotating positions. One individual’s prints turn up in 1453, 1455 and 1465, for example. In a larger project now being planned, Späth aims to compare the Speyer prints with those in the archives of other city states, to see how different administrations conducted their business. He is particularly keen to examine seals on treaties signed between city states, which should allow him to home in on the network of notables who ran medieval Germany. “By comparing fingerprints, we hope to obtain a sort of map of the bureaucratic machine,” he says. Such projects could shed light on lives that history has overlooked. In fact, the seals may help us to see that some aspects of life back then were not so very different from modern times. Take the story of Walter of Lodswell. In the mid-13th century, he served as chancellor to the bishop of Exeter in the UK, which made him the guardian of the episcopal seal. One night he was summoned because the bishop was dying. Over the next few hours, he and a bunch of other ne’er-do-wells forged all kinds of documents granting themselves land and rights, and sealed them with the episcopal seal. We know all this because Walter later confessed to the crime. Identity theft, it would appear, is not a new phenomenon. n This document bears Laura Spinney’s seal 17/24/31 December 2016 | NewScientist | 65