We are still working our way through our reporting on the many fascinating lectures we attended at the 23rd National Genealogy Congress in Poitiers. To be honest, the subject of this post was one we had avoided for many years. The study of seals seemed to us tedious and dull, the objects fiddly and crumbly. In all, it seemed about as thrilling as those rows upon rows of tiny coins in glass cases in the British Museum. Not as much fun as research and not as much fun as piecing together information about lives long ago. As happens more often than we are happy to confess, we were wrong.
Monsieur Daniel Da-Ponte is an engaging speaker, small, highly audible and witty, though not a dab hand with an out-dated slide projector. He had the comfortable authority that comes with mastery of one's subject and managed to communicate his enthusiasm such that, by the end of the talk, the room was full of breathless converts to sigillography.
He began by pointing out that there are seals as old as one from 777 A.D., which survives on a document relating to Charlemagne, and that 50% of the seals that are still in existence are copies or fakes.
He gave a bit of vocabulary:
- Bulle - is a seal in metal, often silver
- Cachet - a small seal to ensure secrecy
- Garde des Sceaux - Today, this is the Ministry of Justice
- Lac - the silk or other type of ribbon that attaches the seal to the document
- Matrice - the engraved object to print the seal onto wax
- Queues - excess lac below the wax
During the Medieval era, which was the golden age of seals, apparently, the sealing procedure was thus:
- A document was written
- Ribbon attached the pages, often sewn through them at the side, binding them
- Wax (or, less often, lead) is dripped onto the two ends of the ribbon, closing them together, as would a knot; the wax was not on the document itself*
- The seal is pressed into the hot wax
Seals had nothing to do with heraldry, Monsieur Da-Ponte shouted emphatically, though they could, especially after the twelfth century, have the image of a family's crest. Their purpose was not to show relationship but to confirm or even replace a signature. Thus, a seal was an authentication of the approval if not the authorship of a document, to the point that it had probative value. For this reason, seals were very carefully guarded, often worn as rings.
Their value, he said, is in the study of Medieval costume, art history and social history and NOT genealogy. However, for those genealogists working on family records from the twelfth or thirteenth century, a knowledge of seals will be useful in confirming the authenticity of some of those documents. He mentioned that a claim made to him by one fellow to have used seals to trace his family line to 52 B.C. is preposterous (he glared around the room at this point, daring anyone to make a similar claim; no one accepted the dare).
He closed his cheery talk with the suggestion that anyone who can should visit the Musées du Sceau et Springerlé (delightful combination of subjects, that) in La Petite Pierre, Bas-Rhin.
©2015 Anne Morddel
*In our photograph above, 18th century wills have been stitched shut and the seals placed over each point where the stitching pierced the document.