Latin in the Archives

It’s a scenario many of us can relate to. A catalogue entry looks promising for your research, but there is a note that it is in Latin. Our new Latin translation service at ERO may be able to help you – read on to find out more.

Latin was the official language for all legal documents up to the 18th century, including title deeds, Quarter Sessions, manorial and ecclesiastical records, and can also be found in wills, maps, letters and parish registers.

Latin documents can prove a tricky stumbling block in your research, but we can help by translating them for you

Latin documents can prove a tricky stumbling block in your research, but we can help by translating them for you

Latin was temporarily banished from legal records during the Interregnum of 1649-60. Finally, on 25 March 1733 it was enacted by an Act of Parliament (4 George II, c.26, 1731) that English should henceforth be used in all legal documents. The change to English, back to Latin, and then English forevermore can be seen in, for example, the Borough of Colchester’s Monday Court books. English replaced Latin from 21 April 1651, on 27 August 1660 Latin resumed again, but was abandoned in favour of English on 12 June 1733 (D/B5 Cb1/14, 16, 27).

Colchester Monday Court book - last Latin entry

In 1651, during the Interregnum, the Colchester Monday Court began recording its meetings in English rather than Latin. Here we see the last Latin entries made on 21 April 1651…

Colchester Monday Court book - first English entry

…and the first English entries on 21 April 1651 (D/B5 Cb1/14). When the monarchy was restored to the throne in 1660 the use of Latin resumed until English was adopted permanently in 1733.

It is commonly said that documentary Latin is easier to read than Classical Latin. Certainly the syntax (word order) is generally more akin to English and therefore simpler to follow. Moreover, as you would expect from legal documents, the information is set out in a standard way and formulaic phrases are used. Common phrases you might find in wills, for example, include  ‘compos mentis licet eger in corpore’ (of sound mind though sick in body); and ‘lego animam meam Deo omnipotenti, beate Marie virgini et omnibus sanctis eius’ (I leave my soul to God Almighty, to the Blessed Virgin Mary and all His Saints).

Latin will of John Cotelere

A Latin will dating from 1449, belonging to John Cotelere, who left his property to his wife Sara and daughter Agnes (D/Dba T3/2)

English words were often used where there wasn’t a satisfactory Latin equivalent. In a late 13th century grant of land in Little Waltham there appears the words ‘sterlingorum’ (of silver pennies). The word may derive from the Anglo-Saxon ‘steorra’ (star) which was often depicted on the pennies. The English word ‘croft’ which was Latinized into ‘croftam’ is also used in this deed (D/P 220/25/1).

The third word on the fourth line down is 'croftam', a Latinised version of the English word 'croft'. You can see the shape of an 'a' at the end of the word, and the downward stroke joined to it is a contraction to indicate an 'm'

The third word on the fourth line down is ‘croftam’, a Latinised version of the English word ‘croft’. You can see the shape of an ‘a’ at the end of the word, and the downward stroke joined to it is a contraction to indicate an ‘m’

However, even with a familiarity with Latin grammar, many documents can still be very tricky. Ecclesiastical documents, especially those produced by the papal see, may have complex sentence structures and obscure vocabulary. Many words are abbreviated, either by superscript marks or letters (to save time and space on a manuscript). This was a system of standard abbreviations and rules so, once the scribe knew the rules, he could easily read and apply them.

However, it may be that a combination of Latin legalese, challenging handwriting, copious abbreviations and a faded or damaged manuscript are too much of a challenge. If so, you may like to enquire about ERO’s new Latin translation and transcription service. We have recently welcomed to the team Dr Stacey Harmer, who has a diploma in Classical Latin as well as over 10 years’ experience as an Archivist working with Latin documents in local government record offices. Dr Harmer did her PhD on book production and ownership in late medieval Yorkshire, for which she read 1200 original wills (a large proportion of which were in Latin) looking for bequests of books. We offer this translation service not just for documents held at ERO, but also any other Latin manuscripts, as long as you can provide a high-quality digital copy or photocopy. Any type of document will be considered; but we may decline the work if the Latin is too obscure or if the document is in a poor condition.

To find out more, please contact us at ero.enquiry@essex.gov.uk

The beginning: our oldest document

We thought that a good place to start our new blog was at the ‘beginning’ of our collection, so here Archivist Katharine Schofield introduces the oldest document in our collection.

The oldest document in the ERO is over 1,000 years old. It is an Anglo-Saxon charter (catalogue reference D/DP T209) which dates from 962, in the reign of King Edgar.

(Click for a larger version)

It is a grant of land in South Brent, Devon by King Edgar to one of his ministers Ǽthel[wine]. The land later came into the possession of the Petre family, who originated from Devon and became an important Essex family, and the charter forms part of the extensive Petre collection held at the ERO.

The first part of the charter is written in Latin. The second part which describes the boundaries of the land (e.g. ‘by the lane as far as the earthwork’) is written in Anglo-Saxon.

Unlike medieval deeds this charter is not sealed but has a long list of witnesses, beginning with King Edgar. The witnesses include bishops, ealdormen (royal officials) and ministers and Dunstan (later St. Dunstan), Archbishop of Canterbury.

As this charter is so early in date it does not use the conventional language found in later deeds. It includes the warning to those who might choose to ignore the deed:

But unto any who should lessen or infringe this my grant (far be such a thing from the minds of the faithful) be their portion with those on the other side upon whom is pronounced the sentence ‘Depart from me ye cursed into everlasting fire which was prepared for Satan and his followers’.