I love old deeds. They are works of art. They were written by quill pen and iron gall ink in court hand, chancery hand or secretary hand on large squares of parchment. The heading and capital letter are often ornamented with scroll work. So much work went into them as they represented peoples’ wealth and legal title – something that, not so long ago, could only be shown “on paper”. So, what goes into an old deed?
Parchment is most commonly made of calfskin, sheepskin, or goatskin. It was historically used for writing documents, notes, or the pages of a book. Parchment making is a slow process and requires the selection of good skins from healthy animals, which are then washed, dried, soaked in lime, scraped, stretched and scraped and stretched again and again and dried under tension until the finished product is ready for use as a writing surface. Parchment is not tanned like leather, this makes it more suitable for writing, but leaves it reactive to changes in humidity and allows it revert to raw hide if too wet. Vellum denotes a finer quality material referring to a parchment made from calf skin and comes from the Latin word vitulinum (meaning made from calf) and Old French vélin.
Indentures are a form of deed or legal contract. The indenture was so called from the fact that its upper edge was indented – a method of testing authenticity as each party had a copy. These duplicates were written on a single strip of parchment cut irregularly afterwards, so that when required to be produced as evidence the two divided portions would fit each other exactly as indisputable evidence of their originality. By convention in common use after about 1675, the documents open with the title ‘This Indenture’ in large capital letters.
Court hand was a style of handwriting used in medieval law courts from there into use by professionals such as lawyers and clerks. Chancery hand could produce beautiful calligraphic writing; in England it became known as the Italian hand to distinguish it from the angular, cramped, black letter or gothic derived English chancery hand which had been developed earlier. Secretary hand arose out of the need for a hand more legible and universally recognizable and was widely used by scriveners and others whose daily employment comprised hours of writing.
Another important part of a deed is the iron gall ink. The main ingredients are oak galls, iron sulphate and gum Arabic and it was permanent and water resistant. A 1770 recipe suggests two ounces of crushed oak galls soaked overnight in one pint of water to produce tannin, then strained into one ounce of ferrous sulphate. A half ounce of gum Arabic (the hardened sap of the Acacia Senegal tree) is added and the mixture stirred until it is dissolved which might take a week or two. Iron gall ink is purple black or brown black and coloured inks were seldom employed for legal documents. It was the standard writing and drawing ink in Europe, from about the 5th to 19th century and remained in use into the 20th.
The writing was done by a quill pen made from a moulted flight feather (preferably a primary wing feather) of a large bird such as a goose or swan. A quill is hand cut to six or seven inches after being soaked and tempered in hot sand for longer life so that the slit does not widen through wetting and drying with ink and will retain its shape, require infrequent sharpening and be used many times. The hollow shaft of the feather (the calamus) acts as an ink reservoir and ink flows to the tip by capillary action.