In the medieval period, most people were unable to read, and even fewer could write. Writing was seen as a specialised skill, and most things were written in Latin. Everything, including books, had to be written by hand before the development of the printing press around 1450. Any copies of a book also had to be made laboriously by hand. Until the twelfth century, most books were copied by monks in a place in the monastery called a scriptorium. Gradually, booksellers employed scribes to copy books.
The keeping of records necessitated the employment of large numbers of scribes who were not monks. The king had especial need for written records, in particular for taxation purposes and legal documentation. But in fact anyone with a sizeable estate increasingly found it necessary to employ a scribe, at least occasionally, to record land transactions and keep rent records and accounts. Lords of manors had to employ scribes to keep the records of their estates and also to keep a record of the sessions of the manor court.
Manor court sessions were usually held every three weeks. The records of the sessions were written in Latin on pages (or membranes) of parchment (made from the skins of sheep or goats). In order to keep a year's records together, the pages were sewn together and rolled up for storage. The surviving manor court rolls are still stored in that form today. Having been rolled up for so long, the rolls can be difficult to keep flat enough to read. It is normally necessary to weight down the edges with special weights designed not to damage the parchment.
1. Any fines levied on inhabitants of the manor at the manor court were paid to the lord, so he would regard the recording of the sums owing as an important part of the record. The scribe would be expected to take care to make this part of the record clear.
Examine a roll: Look at the Conisbrough manor court roll of 1349/50. Can you see how the scribe is setting out the sums owing to the lord for each case, and then totalling them?
NB: damage to the roll at times means that some totals are missing
2. What did medieval handwriting look like? Click on this link to see an example from the manor court rolls of Conisbrough. This is a photograph of the same 1349/50 roll.
4. What was it like to be a scribe? What materials did he use? How were they made?
More information on manorial court scribes.
Here are some websites that will help you to answer these questions, and more.
This is a comprehensive site, including a tutorial on reading old handwriting
5. Try your hand at transcribing early handwriting. The following link will take you to an interactive tutorial on working out early handwriting, with examples in English for you to try. Good luck!