Medieval Deeds


Medieval deeds were not usually signed, but were authenticated by sealing and by quoting the names of witnesses. But deeds - and also seals - were sometimes forged and so indentures came into use as a protection against fraud. For a deed involving two parties, a pair of indentures was made thus: two copies of the deed were written on the same sheet of parchment and separated by an indented i.e. toothed, cut (Lat. dens, dentis a tooth). One copy was held by each party so that at a future date they could be placed together to check that the indentations matched.

Although indented deeds are well known, not many pairs are found together in record collections. Two such pairs have been noticed recently in the YAHS Archive MD182.

They are :
MD182.7 & 7a: 22July 1485. In Latin. John Dawney and John Scotte of Cowick in the Soke of Snaith exchange 5 roods of land in Cowick.

MD182.15 & 15a: 13 Nov. 1369. In French. William son of Marmaduke Darell of the one part and Anneis widow of William son of William Darell of Dalton (ph. Topcliffe) of the other part. William son of Marmaduke grants land in Dalton to Anneis by way of dower and makes other grants to Anneis and Henry.

In fact, these documents were cut with a wavy and not a zigzag edge, but the term 'indenture' still applies. In these and many other indentures, a line of letters was written between the two copies and the cut made so that it divided each letter. In the first pair, the letters were J o h n D a w n e y and the the second, A B C D E F G H I.

Deeds which were a unilateral declaration by one party only did not need to be indented but were plled (meaning 'cut with a straight edge'). A Medieval (and later) example is a Quitclaim (renouncing all right and title, for example to certain land) and a modern example, a Deed Poll to declare a change of name.

Eric Foster
January 2004