Archives: The Journal of the British Records Association

BOOK REVIEWS

Archives: The Journal of the British Records Association (2015), 50, (130-1), 79–95.

Abstract

BOOK REVIEWS Seals in medieval London 1050–1300: A catalogue, ed. John A. McEwan, (London Record Society, Extra Series Volume I; Woodbridge, The Boydell Press, 2016), pp. xvi + 192. ISBN 978-0-900952-56-2. This is an important book. In its own words, it is ‘the first substantial volume dedicated to the seals of an urban community in the British isles’. It contains coloured images of impressions of 1439 seals attached to early-medieval documents, representative of those used in London in this period. For each we are given the owner’s name, the measurements and the document’s date, the design is identified and the legend transcribed, and in these last the author’s knowledge and expertise are plainly apparent. In many cases more than one impression of the seal is reproduced, enabling us to see how several damaged or faint impressions can be taken together to show us the entire seal, and indeed what may seem a rather contrary virtue of the book is that it shows us seal impressions as they really are; usually it is only the perfect – and thus utterly untypical – impression that finds its way to being illustrated. This is far from being the book’s only virtue. Dr McEwan’s introduction is short but succinct and illuminating. As he points out, the seals used by the non-armigerous classes in Britain have been little studied or, indeed, even listed; thus, though they probably make up some four-fifths of the impressions and casts now in the British Library, Walter de Gray Birch’s monumental catalogue wholly omits those from England and Wales (Scotland is luckier). But these seals of the humbler classes of society are of great interest and potential importance to the social historian; the repertoire of designs was not vast – f leurs-de-lis, lions and radial devices are among those that recur time after time – but at the same time they ref lect individual choice, a hint of personality among people otherwise known to us only by name. And indeed, as Dr Mc Ewan points out, where, as so often in the Middle Ages, a person was known by more than one surname, the name engraved on the seal is likely to be the one that he or she would most like to be used. Three sources have been particularly drawn on – the London Metropolitan Archives, the records of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, Smithfield, and The National Archives – and images of a few particularly important seals have been taken from other archives. The collection is not – simply could not be – comprehensive, but shows us clearly the seals, the sorts of seal that the early-medieval Londoner would encounter. They are not restricted to those of individual townspeople, but include others that are to be found on London documents of the period, and the first 173 entries are the seals of kings, nobles and bishops, cathedrals, monastic houses and hospitals. The general pattern of these seals continued unchanged in the later Middle Ages, but for the seals of individual townspeople the early fourteenth century marked something of a turning point: 1300 is by no means an arbitrarily chosen terminal date. Increasingly in the fourteenth century the seals on documents were anonymous; the legend did not name the owner but consisted of a motto, often commonplace but sometimes interestingly original. The seal may have belonged to the sigillant, probably having been bought off the shelf, but often it will have belonged to the clerk who wrote the document and Archives - April-October 2015.indb 79 28/07/2016 09:08:30

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