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1497 German Medieval Letter

Part 1 of 3

Wax Seal from 1497 enfeoffment
Wax seal on the 1497 manuscript

It's not every day you find a medieval German knight's letter in an old desk. What on earth?

Well, Laurence Posner of Massachusetts contacted us because that is exactly what happened with his father. He wrote us, "I have a document that was among my father's papers when he died. It is written on parchment or vellum and dated 1497 and has a wax seal."

This story has several fascinating sides to it:

  1. How Laurence came to have this document: its provenance

  2. The feudal story embedded on the vellum; it is an enfeoffment, a lord entrusting land to his subordinate vassal, and

  3. Fascinating linguistic and orthographic (paleographic) examples from this 15th century writing.

Today we're going to look at the first part, this document's origins. Look for the other two angles in future blogs.

Part 1: the (partial) provenance.

Shortly after returning form World War II, Laurence's father, Gery Posner, bought a small company in Boston, the Cardon Letter Service for $1,700. The company had evolved as the pre-purchase company apparently included typing services to the college-crowd. An ad in the March 1947 issue of MIT's student newspaper offered "Expert Typing and mimeographing" with rush orders at any time day or night, "except f1-2 p.m. - when we eat!" Under Gery's leadership, it focused on printing and advertising.

The purchase papers are simple but have some curious details. In actuality, Gery purchased the company in his wife Sara's name. At the time, and up until 1974, a married woman purchasing a company had to fill out a "Certificate of Married Woman Doing Business on Separate Account." It seems that the Massachusetts law provided some asset protections for the wife against potential creditors of her husband.

Sara Posner's Certificate of Married Woman form for Massachusetts
Sara Posner's Certificate of Married Woman form

The inventory and furniture included a couple of desks and tables. When Gery started to dismantle one of the desks, he found the folded-up manuscript with the original seal along with some apparently unrelated civil war letters. Long after Gery disposed of the desk, he held onto the document with a wax seal. Thus began the on-again-off-again Posner quest to figure out what this document was all about.

Sales Agreement with the Critical Desk Outlined in Red
Sales agreement with the critical desk outlined in red

Gery hypothesized that the vellum with a wax seal from the desk was an old contract of some sort (and he was right), but had no idea of the specifics, other than it did not seem like English, even old English. He could make out the year 1497 but not anything more. Despite its age, Soethby's was not interested. The curious manuscript remained tucked away with family papers.

1497 enfeoffment outside
The 1497 letter of enfeoffment, cover side

Years later, Gery's son Laurence's curiosity drove him to revisit this intriguing document. He contacted a well-regarded auction house in Massachusetts who told him that without more information about the contents, they couldn't assign a value to it. They certainly couldn't read it. An appraiser relayed that this type of surprise finding in old desks did happen from time-to-time. It is more common than the Posners had expected. Also, any value would be likely directly proportional to the names within it. In other words, unless someone famous was mentioned in this more than 500-year-old document, it likely would not fetch a high price at auction.

Laurence then turned to us to ask if we could translate it and tell him what it was. Translator Stefan relishes the opportunity to dig into pieces this old. It has a wealth of curious linguistic and orthographic examples; he will tell us about them in an upcoming blog.

As is common for older documents, the backside of the letter doubles as the cover and envelope. You'd fold it over and use a wax seal to close it. The cover side showed that it was a letter of enfeoffment, regulating what lands and privileges a feudal lord was granting his vassal, in exchange for what services. This particular one dates back over 500 years to the era of the Holy Roman Empire and was from the Palatine region of Germany.

How this enfeoffment found its way into a desk of Cardon Letter Service remains a mystery. Look for our upcoming blog for the story of the lord and his knight; we were able to sleuth out a few things about them.


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