Understand a document

by Allan Azzaro

If you are not used to old documents it can be difficult at first to understand what is being said. These notes should help you read and understand your document and extract the maximum amount of information to determine what was going on in the life of the person who may well have been your ancestor.

For each document I have written a physical description.  It tells you whether the document is on parchment or paper.  It tells you the overall size, the number of sheets and whether it has been signed, sealed and stamped (which implies that it was a legally valid document).  There is a grading system based on condition of the document ranging from ‘Poor’ to ‘Very Good’, and documents are priced accordingly.  The summary of contents names people mentioned in the document and gives an overview of the subject, for example, the main points of a will, details of a property conveyance, or terms of a marriage settlement.

Here are some helpful notes:

*       Condition of document – Parchment

*       Condition of document – Paper

*       Names of people on document index

*       Property location

Condition of document – Parchment

Parchment was the material used for legal contracts, usually called Indentures.  The majority of documents on this website are written on parchment and are of a remarkably good and consistent quality.  For many of them the description of their condition is simply described as ‘Good, consistent with age’.

When a document is described as ‘Good, consistent with age’ I mean:

*  complete, with no holes, tears or major stains

*  completely legible, with no more than slight fading of the ink

*  usually shows some discolouration dependant on age (very little for documents more recent than 1860, but progressively worse as they get older)

*  has been folded in storage, and the folds will sometimes be deep and quite stiff to unfold

*  outer cover as it has been folded may be extremely dirty, but this will not affect the written side

*  seals will be in place, although a small portion of the wax on one or more seals may have cracked away

Where the condition differs from this I will give specific reasons, but they will generally be as follows:

A ‘Very good’ document is

*  exceptionally clean and neatly folded

A ‘Fair’ document may show

*  more than usual discolouration

*  particularly deep and untidy folds

*  small stains, usually along the folds, maybe up to a couple of centimetres long

‘Poor’ document 

*  may have small holes at the intersection of the folds, or larger stains.  Even this category will still be almost entirely legible

‘Very poor’

*  I have only come across one or two documents in this condition and they are described individually – but even these can still be understood and would be a very worthwhile addition to any family history archive

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Condition of document – Paper

Paper documents are far more variable and the description should be read carefully.  Older paper documents, even when in otherwise good condition can have small tears at the intersection of folds.  Many paper documents on this site are drafts of wills or contracts and may have many deletions and alterations.  Private correspondence can be on very flimsy paper.  I do believe that everything offered on this site is generally legible and potentially of interest to a family historian – but not all are works of art.  Paper documents are graded as for parchment, but of course are priced on merit.

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Names of people on document index

Documents may mention many names but not all are included in the name index on the web site.  I have tried to ensure that the names indexed are those of significant importance in the document, but ultimately, some of the choices are a bit arbitrary.  Some general rules used are as follows:


All those listed as parties to the contract are always included in the name index.  The main difficulty here is that many contracts include trustees, who may sometimes be solicitors acting professionally and who play a very minor part in the transaction.  Before 1874 any contract relating to a Building Society would be undertaken in the names of its trustees, who will all be listed as parties to the contract.  I hope that the document summary makes it clear where any of the parties listed play no very interesting part.

The preamble to many Indentures makes it clear that they result directly from someone’s death.  In this case the deceased will have many mentions in the contract and is included in the name index.

Wills and Probate

Here I have generally indexed the document by the testator, the major beneficiaries and the executors and trustees.  Clearly some executors and trustees will be relations or friends who may be of interest to a family historian, but others may be acting in a professional capacity only.  There is no easy way to distinguish them and I have included them all.

Manor Court Documents

I have generally included the Steward of the Manor among those indexed for these documents.  Court documents are always signed by the steward, and in many cases appear also to have been written by the same hand.

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Property location

I have tried to include all the readily useable information about the property in the document summary.  Note that a typical description of a property location takes the form “… bounded on the North by land formerly in the occupation of X but now of Y, and on the East by land in the occupation of Z” etc. etc.  Evidently it would take much local research to make sense of this and I have left it out of the summary.   More useable information such as “bounded on the West by the public highway from A to B” has been included where available.