What does this 14-century document say?
Dan Hinchen, assistant reference librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society, was perplexed recently by a discovery he made in the organization’s archives: a vellum — a parchment made from calf skin and used for writing — bearing script that he, at first, believed was Middle English.
But in perfect Boston fashion, language experts began stepping forward Friday to respond to a blog post by Hinchen about the item. They offered clues to what language the 14th-century document is in, and theories on what it says.
Hinchen, who was not immediately available for comment, said in his post that he had found the document while looking for an item from 17th-century Massachusetts, in the society’s Charles Edward French autograph collection. When he opened the box he was looking for, he said, his attention was drawn to a folder with the dates “1337-1545.”
The folder held the 3.5-inch-by-9.5-inch vellum of eight lines of text. On the back was written, “2d Edward III May 27, 1337,” a note apparently added by someone centuries later.
The actual text is a dark brown script full of curlicues that looks like it could have come from a Tolkien novel.
“While I was aware that the [Massachusetts Historical Society] holds some medieval manuscript materials, they are primarily small unidentified fragments, or bound religious texts like breviaries and books of hours,” he wrote. “Typically, these manuscripts are done in either Latin or medieval French.”
This one had seemed different, he said.
On Friday, Hinchen blogged about his findings on the society’s website, and asked for experts in the field of paleography, the study of ancient writing, to help him decipher the mysterious text, which appears to come from the 14th century.
“I have a date and perhaps even an author. Still, this doesn’t translate the material for me so I am left with no context for the item or any understanding of the text itself,” Hinchen wrote. “What to do?”
In a center of higher learning like Boston, it wasn’t long before the cavalry arrived.
Daniel Donoghue, the John P. Marquand Professor of English at Harvard University, said the writing is likely Latin, not Middle English, based on the photograph provided by the society. But he could understand how it could be deceiving.
“The script is English, in the sense that it’s an English hand, but the language is Latin,” he said in an e-mail to the Globe. “It would be hard to recognize if you’re not familiar with the hand and the abbreviations. Lots of abbreviations.”
Eric Weiskott, an assistant professor at Boston College who specializes in the history of the English language and Middle English, wrote on Hinchen’s blog post, and told the Globe, that the document “indeed is from England,” but is 14th-century Latin.
“The document ends by dating itself to the reign of Edward III, so the later note on the reverse is correct,” he said. “I believe this is a charter, a grant of properties.”
Weiskott said Friday afternoon he had been passing around an image of the document to colleagues.
Brenda Lawson, director of collections at the Massachusetts Historical Society, said it’s unusual to find documents in the society’s archives as old as the one Hinchen found.
But new discoveries are made in the organization’s collections constantly, she said — the society has a trove of millions of documents and manuscripts spanning centuries.
“We might know generally what’s in a collection, but we certainly don’t know every document in every collection,” she said in a telephone interview. “[There are] new discoveries every day.”
Lawson said it’s part of the society’s mission to engage with the public and it welcomes the interest generated by these types of mysteries.
“That’s what we are trying to do,” she said. “Anything that points people to what we hold in our collection is a good thing.”