Chirograph (Cyrograph)

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The Chirograph was a legal document held between two parties and authenticated. Written on a piece of vellum or parchment, a chirograph would be used for various medieval, papal or notarial document which was then irregularly cut apart and divided among the parties.

History and Use

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A Chirograph

“The chirograph supposedly had its origins in Anglo-Saxon England, where the practice of using notaries to ratify legal documents was not continued generally after the Roman era.”

Authentication

The text on the chirograph was copied twice on the same sheet of vellum or parchment and written between the two sections was the word “cirographum.” The copies were then cut through this lettering, usually in a wavy or irregular manner in order to avoid forged copies. When the two copies were brought together, it would prove the document authentic and free for ratification between the two parties. It would be hard to fake these documents, as the lettering itself was unique as well: "Written in round court-hand, with heavy main-strokes; the strokes below the line drawn out into a point or a hair-line; those above, looped or turned over to the right. In line 2 a transposition of words is indicated by double oblique strokes" (Bond).

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The Grant of Anthony Bek, Bishop of Durham A.D. 1305. British Museum, Harley Charter 43 D. 12. - A.D. 1305. Series II., Plate 138

Whether they were drawn up by courts or by two willing participants, the chirograph was effective and sealed in front of a jury of witnesses. Not only would the halves serve as authentication, but the witnesses would varify by testimony as well; there were no signatures on a chirograph. The authentication process was intricate. "The critical examination of any record. whether literary or documentary, and whether in an authentic form or in a copy, or as reported, must take a full and firm account of the substance of the document and of all tee circumstances surrounding that document. Only when a document has been examined with all thoroughness, externally as well as internally, can its witness be evaluated properly, circumstantially, and fully" (Powell).

Multiple Meanings

The roots of chirography “really only means a hand-written document – from the Greek, xeiro=hand, and graphos-writing” (Stoller).

Diplomatics

The chirograph dealt with a variety of issues (including legal and notarial matters) in a variety of situations.

Medieval Documents

Papal Documents

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The papal chirograph

In modern times, the chirograph refers to a specific document that is issued by the Pope. According to the website of the Secret Apostolic Archives of the Vatican, "It is written in Latin or vernacular on plain paper and lacking of any solemn character. Contrary to what one may deduce from this noun, this document is not entirely written by the pope himself; the pope intervenes directly (at least in the first period) only with his signature, consisting of the pope’s name followed by the ordinal number."

Notarial documents

Taking Care of Business

The language of a chirograph was very specific.

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British Museum, Harley Carter 84 D. 45. - A.D. 1251 Series II., Plate 118
Translation: "The abbey undertakes to pay to Roger and Floria thirty mares, twenty at 'Hokeday' [2nd Tuesday after Easter] and ten at teh Nativity of St. John the Baptist [24th June]. Under the penalty of twenty mares to be paid 'in subsidium Terre Sancte'; to deliver to them six oxen and two plough-cattle ('affri'), six cows and six yearling calves, from the abbey's manor of Preston [Preston-Bisset], and twenty quarters of suitable wheat, in compensation for the winter sowing of their land at Thornborough; and to set up their gates from Thorenborough at Preston; also to build, at the souther end of the hall at Preston, a 'solar' room, measuring thirty by eighteen feet, with fireplace and wardrobe, and two sufficient windows in the hall; and a kitchen with an oven, and in it a stable for six horses; and to sow with the Let sowing the manor of Preston, to the use of Roger and Floria. They, on the other hand, grant to the abbey their land of Thornborough, with its winter sowing and all appurtenances, to hold in frank almoign. Movable goods on either property to remain with the original owners. Dated, Sunday before the Purification of the Birgin, 1250[1]."

Works Cited

  • [[ ]], Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts and their Heritage"
  • Powell, James M., Medieval Studies. An Introduction. Second Edition, (New York : Syracuse University Press, 1992).