Find Out More

For Schools






A Manorial Court Scribe and his Work

< < Back

A Manorial Court Scribe and his Work

View All Contextual Material

Doncaster Archives Reference: DD/YAR/C/1/87

5-6 Henry VIII 1513/14 court roll. Click for a larger view.

The business of the manor court necessitated, by the fourteenth century, the production of extensive written records. Accounts of demesne expenditure, giving details of income and expenditure, and rentals, listing tenants and amounts due from each, were especially important for the lord and his steward. The written record served as a check on manorial officers, like the bailiff and grave, and provided a record of the profits of the manor. The recording of the proceedings of the manor court served a similar purpose, listing all the amercements and fines due to the lord at each session, but included far more information. Razi and Smith 1 argue that this recording resulted from a growing popularity, in the thirteenth century, of the royal courts, to which freemen were entitled to take litigation. The royal courts were expensive, but offered a more secure result with a written record. Lords of manors, wanting to retain their profits and wishing to maintain control over influential tenants, instituted the recording of manor court proceedings to attract free tenants to their own courts. Private cases of litigation were included in the records of the manor court, and the final decision could be checked later if any disagreement arose.

The increase in written records within manors was both a cause and effect of growing numbers of trained scribes. Cathedral schools trained young men in Latin grammar and rhetoric, some of them finding work in the royal courts. Latin continued to carry greater weight than English and was used for both scholarly work and formal record keeping and served as a lingua franca throughout Europe for the educated. Other courses for would-be scribes were set up, giving training in accountancy, conveyancing and the drafting of legal documents. These were essentially practical courses, and those who completed them and obtained work would themselves take on pupils. Many scribes learned their trade as pupils and in turn took on pupils of their own. To aid them, rule books were available, with specimens of court rolls, accounts, surveys and conveyances. Scribes often were not particularly expert in their use of Latin, and set formulae from the rule books were extremely useful to them. It is obvious, when looking at the rolls of different manors, that there is a striking similarity in the wording used by different scribes.

It was not necessary to have come from an especially wealthy family to train as a scribe. Basic reading and writing and elementary Latin could often be obtained from the parish priest for a small fee, and pupilage with a practising scribe could increasingly be obtained locally. A better-off tenant might be able to afford this level of training for a younger son, and patrons could sometimes be found to fund the training of likely boys. Scribes could be of villein or free status, and many combined their trade with farming or brewing. During the sixteenth century, the dissolution of the monasteries provided an additional source for trained scribes: many of the expelled monks had the requisite training and were searching for employment. Scholars, at the Renaissance, returned to classical Latin, abandoning the medieval Latin used in the manor court rolls. This medieval form of Latin continued to be used for the rolls, indicating the specialised and restricted training of the scribes. During the Interregnum, parliament passed legislation declaring that from 1 January 1651 all legal documents, including manor court rolls, were to be written in English. After the Restoration in 1660, the legislation passed during the Interregnum was abrogated and court rolls returned to Latin. From 1733, English was once more required.

Several scribes might be employed intermittently on a large manor. In addition to the regular work of writing up the court rolls, the annual accounts and rentals, the lord or steward required scribal services for legal documents and correspondence. Surveys of the state of the manor were carried out occasionally, especially when the manor changed hands, and recorded. CopyholdCopyhold. A kind of tenure in England of ancient origin: tenure of lands being parcel of a manor, 'at the will of the lord according to the custom of the manor', by copy of the manorial court-roll. An estate held by this tenure; a copyhold estate.

tenants who took up a new tenancy received a copy of the grant recorded in the court roll. Scribes were often jobbing clerks who also worked for other inhabitants of the manor on an ad hoc basis. Their knowledge of correct legal phrasing meant their services were in demand especially for land transactions, and they were called upon to draft deeds, charters and wills.

The tools of the scribe's trade were parchment, ink and quill. ParchmentParchment. A piece of animal skin, esp. from a sheep or goat, dressed and prepared as a surface for writing; a scroll or roll of this material; a manuscript or document written on this.

was made from the skins of sheep or goats by a specialist maker of parchment. The skin was soaked in lime, scraped and rubbed to remove the wool or hair and to reduce its thickness by about one half. It was then stretched on a hoop-shaped frame to dry. The preparation of the parchment was completed by the scribe himself, who smoothed the surface with a pumice, razor or small plane, rubbed it with chalk, and might line it by pricking at intervals with an awl and then connecting the points by drawing lines or making shallow furrows with a stylus. The hair side of the parchment was generally darker and coarser than the flesh side. Quills used came from geese or swans and, for fine work, from crows. The quills wore and softened quickly, so the scribe needed to maintain a good stock. The purplish-black ink was made from a mixture containing iron salts, oak galls and gum, stirred frequently for two to three weeks, and then diluted with water. The iron salts sometimes caused the ink to fade over time to a red-brown or yellow colour. From the fifteenth century, carbon in the form of lampblack might be added to give a denser black. Mistakes would be erased with a knife and the surface restored with a boar's tusk.

Handwriting styles changed over the centuries, with writing tending to become less regular and more cursive from the mid-fourteenth century, allowing the scribe to write more quickly. An italic hand, introduced from Italy and becoming popular with scholars, began to influence scribal styles from the early sixteenth century. It was in this century that specialist writing masters appeared, and they taught a variety of styles. In this period too more elaborate calligraphy might be employed for the headings of manor court rolls, sometimes incorporating small flowers, leaves or faces. A comparison of the images of the specimen rolls will illustrate some of these changes. A number of hybrid hands developed until a round italic hand became the standard handwriting style by the late seventeenth century.


1. Z. Razi & R.M. Smith (eds.), Medieval Society and the Manor Court (Oxford, 1996)