scorecardresearch Skip to main content

How experts helped solve a mysterious 14th-century document

Well, that was easy — for experts who had an eye for medieval Latin.

After a researcher from the Massachusetts Historical Society last week posted an image online of a parchment bearing a language unfamiliar to him from the 14th century, nearly a dozen people versed in translating and transcribing such documents came forward to help decipher it.

The small document turned out to be an English quitclaim, a legal agreement used to acknowledge the transfer of land, written in Latin.

“It looks like we have a fairly common land transfer captured in this document,” said Dan Hinchen, assistant reference librarian at the society, in a blog post this week.


The document, dated May of 1337, is written in brownish curlicue lettering. It explains how William, son of Agatha of Bromlegh, conceded 16 acres of land, “forever from myself and my heirs.” The parchment explains the land was forfeited to a man by the name of John of Billinghurst — it could be Bylingehurst, or Bylynghurst — and his family.

“Neither I, the said William, my heirs, nor anyone, through me or in our name, will be able to exert, claim, or assert anything of right or of claim in the aforesaid sixteen acres of land with its appurtenances, forever,” the document, when roughly translated from Latin, apparently says.

Hinchen was at first perplexed by the document, and believed it was written in Middle English. He had discovered it while searching for an item from 17th-century Massachusetts, in the society’s Charles Edward French autograph collection.

Unaware of the origins of the 3.5-inch-by-9.5-inch parchment of eight lines of text, he posted a blog item online asking for help from experts in the field of paleography — the study of ancient writing.

Within hours, multiple experts began transcribing the writing, after proclaiming it as medieval Latin. Then, shortly after, they began to translate it.


The Globe received several e-mails from researchers and experts who deciphered the text.

England’s Surrey History Centre said some of the names in the document appeared to be connected to Southwest Surrey.

“We learn that William of Bramley (Bromlegh) renounced any claim on land which Richard de Billinghurst had given to his daughter, William’s mother Agatha, probably at the time of her marriage; this was in favour of John de Billinghurst, who was doubtless the heir of Richard de Billinghurst, either son or grandson,” Isabel Sullivan, public services and engagement manager at the center, explained in an e-mail to the Globe.

Sullivan said the center was “delighted” about the discovery of the document, and the chance to read it over.

“The . . . deed tells us about the inter-relationship of a family, land holding in Bramley, and even how a group of people, friends, and neighbours, met in Bramley on a particular day,” she said. “We will certainly be asking the Massachusetts Historical Society for our own copy, so that researchers exploring the archive here can make use of it.”

Hinchen in his blog thanked the public for coming forward to solve the so-called mystery.

“We now have just a little bit more knowledge about our collections and about medieval writing samples,” he said.

The rough translation of the document, as provided by the historical society, can be read below:

“To all the faithful of Christ to whom the present writing shall come, William, son of Agatha of Bromlegh, wishes health in the Lord. Everyone should know that I am conceding, demising, and in perpetuity for me and my heirs quitclaiming, to John dy Bylingehurst and his heirs and assigns all the rights and claims I have, or might be able to have at any time, in 16 acres of land with appurtenances in Bromlegh, which Richard de Bylingehurst gave to Agatha, his daughter. Therefore I, the said William, and my heirs, or anyone acting in my name, give up the right to make any claim to the 16 acres and its appurtenences, or any right to sell it. In which statement I position my seal to this quitclaim. These witnesses: John de Stondebrig, Richard de Grummyngfelde, Richard de Rykhurst, John de Leghe, William Govebrok, and others. Dated at Bromlegh, on the Thursday after the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord, in the 11th year of the reign of King Edward III, after the conquest.”


Steve Annear can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.