Modern forensic analysis is being paired with detailed historical research to reveal new insights into medieval British society hidden within the wax seals of thousands of historic documents.
The unique research project, called Imprint, will examine fingerprints and palm prints left behind on the wax seals of documents dating from the 12th to the 14th centuries. These seals, attached to documents such as land transactions, business contracts, and financial exchanges were the medieval equivalents of modern-day signatures and credit cards.
The three-year study is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and led by Professor Philippa Hoskin from the University of Lincoln, UK, and co-investigator Dr Elizabeth New from Aberystwyth University. They will work with historical materials in the cathedrals of Exeter, Hereford and Lincoln, the National Library of Wales and Westminster Abbey.
The aim is 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’.
The finger and palm prints which are collected will be collated into an online archive which includes detailed information about the seal impressions and documents. This resource will be made available to researchers, archivists, and the general public.
Professor Philippa Hoskin
By the 12th century almost all administrative documents were sealed with wax, impressing a seal matrix to leave a distinctive impression. 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. 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. This is the first time that the information from the handprints found on those seals are being examined, and it could really offer historians new understanding of the period, as well as contribute important information to current debates in forensics on the uniqueness of fingerprints.
Fingerprints retrieved during the archival research will be compared with modern prints stored on automated fingerprint identification systems (AFIS) to see if close matches can be found across such distant periods. This will contribute to understanding of the uniqueness of prints, advancing the science of hand mark identification. That same analysis will also cross-reference all the medieval prints recorded by the project. This has the potential to solve medieval crimes of fraud – for example, if prints found on suspected forgeries can be identified with prints on genuine documents. Imprint's forensic advisers, Forensic Focus, will present the data gathered at conferences and workshops for professional investigators.
Meet the Expert
Professor Philippa Hoskin,
School of History and Heritage
Phillipa Hoskin is a Professor of medieval studies, and is a recognised authority on medieval legal and administrative systems to intellectual, political and social change, and the impact of thirteenth-century Scholasticism in the medieval English parish.