Researchers to uncover crimes and forensic secrets hidden in Britain's historic wax seals

By Richard Moss | 08 January 2015

The wax seals of thousands of medieval documents are to be studied to help uncover medieval crime and provide insights into 12th - 14th century British society

a close up photo of a seal with a kingly figure, Latin inscription and traces of fingerprints
One of the seals held at the University of Lincoln© University of Lincoln
The wax seals of thousands of medieval documents are to be studied using modern forensic techniques to reveal new insights into 12th to 14th century British society and even uncover medieval crimes.

A new three year research project called Imprint will examine fingerprints and palm prints left behind on the wax seals attached to medieval documents such as land transactions, business contracts, and financial exchanges held in collections across the UK.

The fingerprints identified on the seals will also be cross-referenced to see if researchers can solve medieval crimes of fraud – for example, if prints found on suspected forgeries can be identified with prints on genuine documents.

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and led by Professor Philippa Hoskin from the University of Lincoln with Dr Elizabeth New from Aberystwyth University, the historical documents in the cathedrals of Exeter, Hereford and Lincoln, the National Library of Wales and Westminster Abbey will all come under scrutiny. 

A photo of a medieval seal made from a large piece of red wax
© University of Lincoln
The academic sleuths hope to reveal more about medieval social structures, networks of authority and the bureaucracies and protocols behind the authentication and security of documents in medieval England and Wales. The results will also help to answer questions about administrative and legal changes, including how the identification of the sealer with their seal changed over time – a practice known as the ‘performative act of sealing’.

Professor Hoskin, who is Professor of Medieval Studies at the University of Lincoln, said the study will be the first time that the handprints found on seals will be examined, "and it could really offer historians new understanding of the period”.

“By the 12th century almost all administrative documents were sealed with wax, impressing a seal matrix to leave a distinctive impression," she added.

“Some were bespoke and some bought off the shelf – but all were necessary to validate any legal document with which the seal’s owner was connected.

a photo of a medieval seal
One of the Lincoln seals with fingerprints visible© University of Lincoln
“These wax seals have the potential to give us so much information about medieval people, but they are often set aside as less important than the document itself.  The study will also contribute important information to current debates in forensics on the uniqueness of fingerprints, and not only that, but potentially uncover medieval crime.”

The prints will be collated into an online archive alongside detailed information about the seal impressions and documents and will be made available to researchers, archivists, and the general public.

Example stories from the project’s work will be showcased through the website being developed by the Humanities Research Institute at University of Sheffield. There will also be workshops for academics and members of the public, offering a vivid insight into medieval life.

Describing the way hand prints on wax seals “bring us close to medieval people in a very tangible way”, Dr New, who is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at Aberystwyth University, added that it was “important to remember that seals were not just the preserve of kings and great nobles: men and women from all levels of society also set their seals on documents”.

a photo of a medieval document with three wax seals attached to it
© University of Lincoln
“Medieval seals contained a variety of images and words, providing strong statements of identity and very valuable sources of information about people, culture and society.

“The images can tell us what things actually looked like, and provide glimpses of humour, piety and family pride. They also enabled otherwise illiterate men and women the means to ‘write’ their name.

“These small objects have always had great significance, and are rich time-capsules that can open exciting windows into past lives. Examining the hand prints left – both accidentally and deliberately – in the wax along with impressions of seal matrices provides further important opportunities to deepen our understanding of our medieval ancestors.”

A Forensic and Historical Investigation of Fingerprints on Medieval Seals runs from January 2016 to December 2018.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

a photo of a woman studying books in an archive
Professor Philippa Hoskin from the University of Lincoln studies the evidence© University of Lincoln
a photo of a medieval document with two seals attached to it
© University of Lincoln
A close up of a medieval seal with a religious figure on it
© University of Lincoln
A photo of a red wax seal with religious church figure on it
© University of Lincoln
a black and white photo of one of the medieval seals scanned for fingerprints
A scan of one of the seals© University of Lincoln
a photo of a seal attached to a medieval document by old cords
© University of Lincoln

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