Archives are deposited at the record office every day and come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from a single parchment deed to a whole vanload of volumes.
Processing the material, or ‘accessioning’ as it’s called in the trade, is approached exactly the same way, no matter how big or small the deposit. As you’d expect, it involves making an accurate record of the content, extent and physical condition of the archives. What most of our customers perhaps don’t realise however, is that most of the records we look after don’t actually belong to us, but are entrusted to us as long-term loans on behalf of their owners, so recording the origins and background to the deposits – or their provenance, if you have your Fiona Bruce hat on – is also crucial. All of this means we have a duty of care to depositors as well as our users, and one of the daily challenges professional archivists face is the need to keep these two, sometimes competing demands, in careful balance.
Accessions arrive in various forms-including mint chocolate boxes
One of the joys of accessioning is that you never know quite what is going to arrive in your to-do pile, or who is going to turn up at the front door. Much of it is routine, of course, but once in a while, something comes to light which stands out as a rarity and a lucky survival, and really does make those stressful days on the frontline of a busy public service seem worthwhile.
One of these gems is the Austin Friars seal matrix (148A06W/1), a reminder that the custodial stories behind the archives can be as fascinating as the archives themselves. A seal matrix is the metal object pressed onto the wax which seals and authenticates important documents, and would have been among the most valuable possessions of a medieval monastic house: the equivalent of a passport or ID badge, identifying the bearer and any documents issued under it as the genuine article. This particular matrix is quite unprepossessing to look at: oval in shape, made of dark brown bronze, and only about the weight and size of a fifty pence piece. It features a Virgin and child, and bears a Latin inscription identifying it as the seal of the ‘Prior of the Order of Friars Hermit of St Augustine, Winchester’, a small establishment based near the South Gate, in Winchester (on the east side of the modern St Cross Road).
What makes it really fascinating is that it was found in woods south of Mystole House in Kent. The house is on the Pilgrim’s Way, between Winchester and Canterbury – a route which, in the Middle Ages, would have been bustling with pilgrims heading for Thomas Becket’s shrine in Canterbury. All of which leads us to wonder how such a highly-valued and useful object could have ended up abandoned there. Was it lost by members of the Winchester brethren, whilst on pilgrimage? Or perhaps it was stolen? If it was, we can only wonder at the panic felt by the brothers who managed to lose it, and the severity of the telling-off that awaited them when they returned home… The friary was founded around 1289 and was dissolved in 1538, so it could have been lying by the wayside for a very long time before finding its way back home to Winchester again. Of course we’ll never know exactly what happened, but sometimes it’s hard not to let your imagination fill in the blanks that the official record leaves unclear!
Watch out for more desert island documents in the coming months…
Adrienne Allen, archivist