Medieval Writing
Cursive Legal Hand  

Script Type : minuscule cursive also known as chancery hand or court hand

Date : early 16th century ?

Location : England

Function : document hand


Fragment of a plea roll, probably early 16th century, recovered from a bookbinding, from a private collection.  
Pass cursor over letters to see enlarged examples taken from the page illustrated above.  

Distinctive letters : This fragment is evidently from a legal plea roll, listing cases to be heard. It was discovered in a bookbinding; a fate for all kinds of tantalising fragments as old bits of written parchment were re-used for this purpose. The fragment is written on both sides, with the texts upside down with respect to each other, indicating that this was from one of a number of leaves joined at the head. On paleographical grounds it would appear to be early 16th century, corroborated by a certain lack of fluency in Latin by this time. The standard legal terms are rendered in Latin, but the text lurches into English in the descriptive bits. The text consists of a number of entries of similar format, relating to pleas of debt. The two shown here are the most complete and easily read on this damaged fragment.

The script is a fairly informal, but nonetheless rather florid, example of that derived from chancery bastarda, known in the 16th century as court hand. Ascenders and descenders tend to be large and loopy. Some elaborated and enlarged letters,or capitals, appear at the beginnings of words, but not necessarily the words we would expect to be capitalised today.

The letter a has a very distinctive triple looped form, like a cloverleaf. The letter e appears to be back to front, as usual in English cursive scripts of this date, and c also has a tendency to roll over. The letter g has the double closed form, like a figure of eight. The letter r has the very recognisable English open form that extends below the baseline, and also occurs in the simplified form that appears after o. The short s with open upper loop and closed lower loop is mostly used, both at the beginning and end of words, and long s appears infrequently. The letters k and w, appearing only in English words or in names, are curly and elaborated.

Letters composed of minims, such as i, n, m, u and the simplified r, run into each other and can be hard to distinguish.

The letter j, or consonantal i if you like, is found only at the beginning of words in the example shown, and appears as an enlarged letter or capital. The same applies to v, or consonantal u.

There are no examples shown of q, x or z.

As is common in cursive scripts of this date, some words end with a curly flourish and it can be unclear whether this represents an abbreviation mark or not. The spelling of English words is quite erratic. On the other side of the fragment, the words yoman and yeoman appear in the same sentence.

There are some annotations in a later hand on the fragment.

There is probably not a lot of point to putting in a paleography exercise for this, as what you see here is pretty much what there is.

Script Index  

Paleography exercises using Flash

Requires at least the Flash 5 plugin


If you are looking at this page without frames, there is more information about medieval writing to be found by going to the home page (framed) or the site map (no frames).
This site is created and maintained by Dr Dianne Tillotson, freelance researcher and compulsive multimedia and web author. Comments are welcome. Material on this web site is copyright, but some parts more so than others. Please check here for copyright status and usage before you start making free with it. This page last modified 21/7/2013.