DECIPHERING KING JOHN.

The Morgan Library has a blog post by Carolyn Vega showing a charter signed by King John and dated March 5, 1205, that “conferred land holdings or privileges on the abbey and monks at Selby.” It’s a beautiful document, but the reason I bring it to your attention is the last bit:

John signed the charter “.J. Reg” on the verso, along with a note that I cannot decipher. Notice how the quality of his penmanship varies from that of the trained scribe above. His signature seems almost to quaver, and not only does he fail to form the individual letters with the precision that is present in the formal gothic script, but the ink fades out towards the end of each line. I am curious about John’s added note — can you help us decipher it?

If you fancy your ability to read medieval English script, give it a shot. (Thanks, Leslie!)

Comments

  1. J.W. Brewer says:

    “And signed it not ‘Johannes R.’ But very humbly ‘JACK.’”

  2. This doesn’t look like a proper signature to me. I agree with Karl who wrote:
    I haven’t used my medieval paleography in years, but this doesn’t look like anything written by John himself. The hand looks like 15th-century minuscule cursive to me. It’s probably a much later annotation.

  3. Do we know which (if any) of the French kings of England could write?

  4. mollymooly says:

    I thought that John was illiterate, and sealed but did not sign Magna Carta at Runnymede. Is this a pre-urban legend?

  5. Quaerens Sapientiam says:

    The text of the charter is in textualis formata. For unique documents like a charter you hire somebody to write the document in nice handwriting if you can afford it, but you probably sign it yourself, ergo the discrepancy between the text and the “signature.” Also, though, that’s not a signature per se: all it says is “King John” in standard Latin with standard abbreviations for John and king — anyone could have written it, including the man himself. Medieval signatures are typically very elaborate so that they cannot be forged easily. For how banal this one is, it’s probably just a formality that someone wanted to note who made the charter law, or the King John was too ill to put a lot of effort into signing it, or what have you: many could be the reasons.

  6. Notice how the quality of his penmanship varies from that of the trained scribe above. His signature seems almost to quaver, and not only does he fail to form the individual letters with the precision that is present in the formal gothic script, but the ink fades out towards the end of each line.
    No idea what “seems almost to quaver” means, either it quavers or it doesn’t, and it doesn’t; it’s well-controlled handwriting, more even than later monarchs’ signatures and not shaky at all. The right-hand side looks to me as if it has faded as has the vellum in the same spot, not that the .J. Reg-writer ran out of ink (as is implied by Carolyn Vega).

  7. Trond Engen says:

    King Olav Kyrre of Norway (ca. 1050-93, ruling 1067-1093), son of Harald Hardråde, is generally aaccepted as the first Norwegian king who could read*. His skill is mentioned by Symeon of Durham, apparently. King John was a century later, in a kingdom more exposed to European culture, ecclesiastic intrigues and international diplomacy, so I find it hard to believe that reading wasn’t obligatory in the education of English princes. But there’s a leap from reading to writing, of course.
    *) It has occured to me, though, that the skill worth noting might have been the ability to read Latin letters — or even Latin text. It wouldn’t be too odd if the seafaring kings before him knew to craft a goodslabel or a guarantee in runes.

  8. Trond, apparently Alfred the Great could read (I’m not sure if he could write).
    Dearie: Do we know which (if any) of the French kings of England could write?
    Molly: I thought that John was illiterate
    It seems many of the Norman kings could at least read French. According to this interesting article about Edward II, p.225, V.H.Galbraith says (Literacy of Medieval English Kings, 1935, Proceedings of the British Academy – I wish I could get hold of it) from the time of Henry II (1133-89) ‘all our kings were taught letters in their youth…How far they were literate in the strict sense, namely to what extent they were Latin scholars, is hard to know; but, and this is much more important, we can hardly doubt that henceforth they could all read French’. JRS Phillips says in the article that there were two versions of the Coronation Oath produced at Canterbury for Edward II in 1311, the first in Latin headed as a gloss by the clerk ‘if the king shall be literate’ the second in French with ‘if the king shall not be literate’. But read the article…

  9. David Eddyshaw says:

    Genghis Khan (I think it was) is supposed to have instructed his advisers that his sons should be taught to swim before they were taught to read, as they could always find someone else to read for them.

  10. I believe that it is dated year 5, which would be 1204, and that this is a transcription of the copy in the Tower of London.

  11. My ability to read medieval English script is virtually non-existent, but I love a good mystery. Thanks for the pointer, LH; I don’t visit the Morgan blog often enough.

  12. either it quavers or it doesn’t
    It has to be all or nothing? Then what’s a semiquaver?

  13. ‘what’s a semiquaver?’
    Four hemidemisemiquavers, piled on top of one another.

  14. Next to each other, surely.

  15. Next to each other, they would remain as four discrete hemidemisemiquavers.
    (Even as musical-notation-based jokes go, mine was a poor one.)

  16. Well done, Stan. We can all breve again.

  17. AJP: I ought to stop, double sharp, lest people get crotchety.

  18. I am glad our host does not bar musical jokes; though I suppose it would be too much treble to bother unless he had some staff. Fortunately, commenters here know when to give it a rest.

  19. marie-lucie says:

    Lest the jokes fall flat.

  20. Trond Engen says:

    the first in Latin headed as a gloss by the clerk ‘if the king shall be literate’ the second in French with ‘if the king shall not be literate’.
    Yes, it’s that definition of literacy that fed my speculation about the Norwegian kings.
    Notational jokes should be limited to a minim.

  21. I descant take any more!

  22. Too much of this mordent wit. It gave me quite a turn.

  23. I’m surprised this struck a chord. Coda we make it to forte puns? That would be such a trill.

  24. marie-lucie says:

    Let’s not fret too much about it.

Speak Your Mind

*